Press Release

Responses to HIV/AIDS Must Redress Gender Inequality, African Development Forum is Told

5 December 2000
Author: UNFPA

Addis Ababa—Inequality between women and men is a key factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS and must be addressed in all efforts to counter the disease, participants in the African Development Forum 2000 heard today. A panel discussion organized by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) featured five experts who described how socially prescribed gender roles and legal inequity help drive the global pandemic and outlined necessary policy responses.

Photo: Photos: William A. Ryan/UNFPA

Over 1,500 representatives of African governments and civil society are attending the 5-day forum on "AIDS: The Greatest Leadership Challenge", which opened here on 3 December. Organized by the Economic Commission for Africa in conjunction with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and its seven cosponsoring organizations, the meeting aims to mobilize political commitment and develop more effective strategies for combatting the disease in Africa and mitigating its impact. Several African presidents and prime ministers, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and heads of various UN agencies including UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Nafis Sadik are among the participants.

African Development Forum (ADF) Web site >>

Today’s UNFPA panel on Gender and HIV/AIDS was one of several sessions focusing on different aspects of the pandemic. It was chaired by Virginia Ofosu-Amaah, Director of the Fund’s Africa Division. Several hundred forum participants attended.

Wariara Mbugua, Chief of UNFPA’s Gender Issues Branch, first gave an overview: "In Africa, prevailing gender roles have relegated women and girls to a subordinate status, which limits their ability to protect themselves against the HIV/AIDS virus." The disease is spreading fastest among females, especially girls and young women. In some cases, infection rates among girls aged 15-19 are five times that among boys.

"In too many instances," she noted, "women are told when to become sexually active, when and whom to marry, how to have sexual relations, and even when to have children and whether or not they can use contraception. This clearly has dire consequences with respect to HIV/AIDS."

Men are often viewed as unable to control their sexual behaviour and are "excused for not behaving responsibly," she said, while "women are reluctant to buy or carry condoms because they fear being accused of wanting to seduce men." And "women, not their attackers are blamed for sexual abuse."

Women’s low social status, economic dependence on men and lack of education and job opportunities contribute significantly to ignorance about how to protect themselves, Ms. Mbugua added. Economic vulnerability also leads many women to put themselves at risk by selling sex.

Martin Foreman, Director of the Panos AIDS Programme, presented research on masculinity and HIV/AIDS. "More often than not, it is men who decide whether or not to have intercourse and whether or not to use a condom," he stated. "In every country researched, a much higher proportion of men than women reported casual sex". Men’s risk of HIV infection "generally comes from the number of partners they have, while women’s risk comes from their partners’ sexual behaviour." Poverty and women’s dependence on men often lead to situations where "a relatively small group of older men can infect a larger group of young women," he noted.

While condom use is increasing, Mr. Foreman said, "much HIV transmission occurs within long-term or ‘serious’ relationships where condoms are avoided because they are seen as a sign of promiscuity." Violence against women stemming from men’s belief "that control of women’s lives is an essential element of masculinity" also spreads the disease, he added.

Jane Kiragu, Executive Director of Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers, gave examples of laws and legal frameworks that should be changed to better combat HIV/AIDS. Measures are needed to ensure that people with HIV who seek medical care "are treated the same ways as those who are not," she said. Discriminatory age-of-consent and marriage laws help spread the disease. Confidentiality rules for health care providers should allow disclosure of patients’ HIV-positive status to those they have put at risk, after the infected individuals have had enough to opportunity but have failed to do so themselves, she suggested.

Any effective strategy against HIV/AIDS must take into account the ways gender inequality and the disease affect food production, stressed Marcela Villarreal, Chief of the Food and Agricultural Organization’s Population Programme Service. Some countries will lose up to one fourth of their agricultural labour force in the next 20 years. Women, perform a disproportionate share of farm work; their responsibilities for caring for the sick conflict with this role.

Ms. Villarreal also cited the harmful affects, for example, of discriminatory traditional laws regulating land tenure and practices in some societies that prevent widows from inheriting livestock.

Finally, Ngozi Iwere, Programme Manager of the Community Life Project in Nigeria, argued that community-level interventions against HIV/AIDS must reflect the realities of gender as well as poverty. "Women bear the major burden of HIV/AIDS because of their traditional roles within the family and the community," she noted. "Where the infected woman who heads a household herself becomes ill and unable to earn a living, the situation of the household could become hopeless." She described a variety projects in several African countries that help communities protect women against HIV infection and care for families affected by the epidemic.

All of the speakers emphasized that national policies and community-based programmes need to recognize and counter the role that gender inequality plays in HIV/AIDS transmission and the impact of the disease.

The Africa Development Forum 2000 will continue until 7 December. The UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Sadik, will address the meeting that day as part of a panel of UN agency heads. She will hold a press conference at the conference centre here on Wednesday, 6 December, at 3:30 p.m.

Contact Information:

William A. Ryan

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