By Cassandra Novick
AIDS experts who have gathered in Washington this week say that an AIDS-free generation will not be achieved without including women as a key ingredient in a comprehensive recipe to attack the complex issues that face women, children, young girls, and the communities in which they live.
Linda Scruggs, a HIV positive mother and program director of AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families, stated that HIV is not the cause of gender inequality, but the result.
In an account of the attempts to include women in the HIV/AIDS attack strategy for the last two decades, Linda Scruggs resounded, “we have decided to stop asking and maybe you just need the recipe…we can no longer satisfy to account for less than 10 percent in anything you want to do.”
Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), informed a news conference that “Women are slightly more than half of all people living with HIV, but more than half of all countries still do not allocate any HIV program funds for the specific needs of women and girls.”
Sippel acknowledged the understandable excitement at the conference over the effectiveness of Truvada, a new drug that has been shown to help prevent contraction of HIV, and voluntary male circumcision.
“But,” Sippel cautioned, “those things won’t work by themselves. They have to be used in combination with measures targeting the barriers that keep women at high risk.”
The issues making women more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS, as identified by CHANGE, include poverty, lack of decision-making power about their own sex lives, lack of economic dependency, gender-based violence, legal barriers to gender equality, and a lack of education. Unfortunately, many these issues feed into one another, which is why the experts at the session advocated a comprehensive solution for addressing high rates of HIV in the female population.
Sexual violence has been proven, according to Geeta Rao Gupta who is the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, to impact education. Gupta explained that many young girls drop out of school after experiencing sexual violence or because their family would rather allocate financial resources to send their son to school.
These girls that drop out of school are then more likely than their educated peers to engage in risky behavior, experience early child birth, and overall increase their vulnerability to contracting HIV, informed Gupta.
Gupta therefore advocated early childhood sexual education as well as mentoring to encourage a sense of agency to act on the education they acquire, thereby feeling empowered to advocate for their own rights or simply demand for the use of a condom.
In addition to Gupta’s suggestions, The Center for Heath and Gender Equity (CHANGE) advocated, in their Overview: Not Without Women, that integrated action must be taken to improve access to reproductive services, employment opportunities, housing, and education.