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Women at the frontline in the AIDS response

Women at the frontline in the AIDS response

Toronto, 14 August- Young women aged 15 to 24 are more than twice as likely to become infected with HIV as men said Melinda Gates, co-chair of the “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”, at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto.

Speaking at a session entitled “Women at the frontline in the AIDS response,” Gates said that women are not only increasingly the face of HIV, they are also the caregivers and hence bear the brunt of the HIV burden. Yet in many societies, women have few rights and are caught in a social and cultural net of gender inequality that serves to drive the spread of HIV.

Panelists discussed the tragedy of rural women in India, who for the most part have only one sexual partner in their life – their husband. But when they become infected with HIV, the blame falls on them and they are either beaten or thrown out of the house.

For South African jazz artist and HIV activist, Musa “Queen” Njoko, women are the backbone of every society. They need to be empowered and must refuse to be victims. “Decisions need to be made by women and we need to put in place programmes to help develop women’s skills and enable them to become independent.”

Njoko added that she did not just mean micro-economic programmes, but programmes that would fulfill women’s interests and help build a future for them.

Similarly, Gates argued that addressing women’s empowerment and lifting them out of sex work, for instance, required dealing with a range of issues, such as supplying clean water so they would not have to walk long distances to fetch water every day.

Sex workers also needed safe places where they could come together and find out how to stay healthy, where to get condoms and where to get tested for HIV.

“Sex workers are part of society …” said Gates. “These are women who are working to provide a better future for their children, like any other women.” Gates stressed that enlisting sex workers in the fight against AIDS would help them protect themselves from infection and keep them from passing the virus along to others.

In another session on the second day of the conference, about 300 people met to discuss the topic, “Sex workers, HIV and human rights: What can be done?” From Mali, Angelica D. spoke of the regular police raids endured by sex workers and the ensuing violence and extortion for money or sex, all in the midst of regular condom supply shortages. An NGO working with these sex workers had negotiated a scheme with police in Mali’s capital Bamako that meant that sex workers carrying a card confirming their membership to that NGO would not be arrested.


In the Pacific Island countries and territories, a total of about 5,500 women are reported to be living with HIV or died of an AIDS related illness (2004 SPC estimates). However, the reported cases do not reflect the total disease burden as case numbers are influenced by access to testing, testing uptakes and notification rates.

The high levels of sexual and domestic abuse in the region as well as social norms that often do not empower women to make informed decisions or give them the tools to protect themselves from HIV & other STI transmission mean those women are very vulnerable to HIV. Furthermore, women who reveal their positive status risk more discrimination as they are often abandoned by their family or disinherited by their in-laws if their husband dies of an AIDS related complication.




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