'Silence Is Death': Towards a Woman-Centred HIV/AIDS Prevention

Article excerpt

Secretary-General Kofi Annan highlighted in a BBC interview that the largest demographic group to be targeted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic was women. Taking stock of this reality, he stated: "We've seen women's organizations at the grass-roots level and this is very important, because today in Africa AIDS has a woman's face.... Often they are the innocent victims."

The United Nations Children's Fund reported that in sub-Saharan Africa, where prevalence of the disease is most severe, two girls for every boy (aged 15 to 24) are newly infected with the virus, while in the most affected countries the ratio is five to one among the 15- to 19-year-olds). The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) reported in 2004 that worldwide women comprised nearly 50 per cent of adults living with the virus, almost 60 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

In his report "In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights For All", Mr. Annan emphasized two imperatives: mobilization of greater political will to formulate and expedite policy decisions related to the disease; and increased financial support for the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Appropriate actions are therefore required to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Their reversal and eradication, as well as the overall reduction in mortality rates worldwide, by 2015 is the main goal. The report also encourages Member States to prioritize HIV/AIDS-related initiatives, which would require furthering awareness of the disease while attacking stigmatization. "If there is anything we have learned in the two decades of this epidemic, it is that in the world of AIDS, silence is death", the Secretary-General reflected at the launch of the Global Media AIDS Initiative in January 2004. Silence equals death has become something of a catchphrase with regard to AIDS awareness.

The allocation of resources to combat HIV/AIDS would demonstrate a productive relay that would entail treatment and care of people living with the virus, in conjunction with widespread interventions, such as extensive and informed counselling, community activism, educational outreach, a more extensive and equitable distribution of pharmaceutical products, and increased contraception options beyond abstinence and condom use. Institutional efforts, such as research and development in basic and clinical sciences, are also needed.

Few other issues have gone so far as the HIV/AIDS pandemic has in illustrating the impact of gender disparities. African societies are among those requiring conscientious self-assessment and reform when it comes to patriarchal power and its negative effects on women. The blueprint for such reforms has been laid out by the MDG objective to "promote gender equality and empower women". Reducing inequalities has a direct impact on the threat that HIV/AIDS poses to men, women and children today. In 2005, it is estimated that approximately 8,200 persons succumb to the pandemic daily, and the number of women living with the virus has increased since 2002. UNAIDS reported that within the 2002-2004 period, East Asia experienced an increase of 56 per cent, while Eastern Europe and Central Asia followed close with 48 per cent.

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Women are more vulnerable than men and twice as likely to being infected with HIV/AIDS through sexual transmission. This risk exposure is often worsened by the lifestyle choices and beliefs of their male counterparts. For example, the refusal of many African men to wear condoms stems from the assumption that masculinity is best exemplified by impregnation and childbearing. Women find it difficult to negotiate with their partners on contraceptive use due to power disparities, such as in courtship practices and the traditional institution of marriage. In a study cited by UNAIDS, it revealed that only 11 per cent of married Zambian women felt it their right to demand condom use, even if the husband had proven unfaithful and was HIV-positive. …