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UN Assesses Global Hiv Status Of Women

UN Officials Assess Global Hiv Status Of Women On International Women's Day

In just one decade women have moved from the margins of the HIV/AIDS pandemic to its very centre, a senior official from the United Nations women's fund said today as the world body observed International Women's Day.

"Ten years ago, women worldwide made up 38 per cent of people infected with the disease. Today they make up 50 per cent. In some regions this ratio has tilted further towards women: in the Caribbean it is 52 per cent, in Africa, 58 percent. Ten years ago, women were at the periphery of the epidemic. Today, they are at its epicentre," Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women ( UNIFEM), said. Addre ssing a panel discussion on "Women and AIDS" at UN Headquarters in New York, she said it was particularly alarming that among newly infected 15- to 24-year-olds in developing countries, young women outnumber young men two to one.

Rape, sexual violence and women's powerlessness in refusing unwanted sex or demanding safe sex have been serious factors in the spread of the disease, she said.

About 45 of the UN's 191 member nations have approved specific laws against domestic violence, 21 more have been drafting new laws and many others have amended criminal laws to include domestic violence, she said.

Amplifying the violence issue, Angela King, the Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said the Commission on the Status of Women, through skilled negotiation and compromise, had boldly staged public discussions of topics against which there had been unspoken taboos.

The subjects included domestic violence against women, female genital mutilation, marital rape, honour killings and general male dominance, the very issues which have combined to make women and girls especially vulnerable to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Ms. King said.

The African continent and the Caribbean countries have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, the UN Assistant Secretary-General added.

Along with the causes for concern came hope, however, she said, commending courageous people in Botswana, Brazil, Cambodia, Romania, Senegal, Thailand, Uganda and Zambia, who, with their governments, donor countries, the private sector and civil society, "prove daily that the spread of HIV/AIDS can be contained."

The Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bertrand Ramcharan, said, "Today we renew our pledge to ensure progress in the promotion and protection of the human rights of women. Greater attention to human rights is essential for effective strategies to prevent and address the consequences of this epidemic."

The Adviser for the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS ( UNAIDS) on Partnerships and Community Mobilization, Noerine Kaleeba, an AIDS widow who is the mother of five girls and foster-mother to 14 children, said women needed more than information in the fight against AIDS. They needed education, jobs, property and safety from violence.

Looking at the predicament of generally poverty-stricken young girls infected by promiscuous older men, Ms. Kaleeba said, "Girls do not sleep with older men because they think it is safe. They do so to pay school fees, or to replace a father figure whom they lost in early childhood.

"Sex workers do not agree to have sex without condoms because they do not know the risk. They do so because they get paid five times as much."

The UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, Sir George Alleyne, noted that AIDS, unlike the Black Death that decimated Europeans in the 14th century and the influenza pandemic at the beginning of the last century, AIDS "is not an equal opportunity killer."

"It is predominantly a killer of young adults in their most productive years," he said.

In the Caribbean region, where 75 per cent of recent university graduates were women, most of the people in HIV/AIDS treatment were also female. The skills and knowledge that women acquired in the formal education system might not enable them to take control of other parts of their lives, Sir George said.

According to a film, "Women Are," co-sponsored by UNAIDS and the World Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and shown in Geneva, an estimated one-fifth to one-half of girls and young women worldwide reported that they were forced to have their first sexual encounter.

Meanwhile, "to raise the profile of women in science globally," the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ( UNESCO) announced $100,000 L'Oreal-UNESCO awards for each of five outstanding women scientists: Jennifer Thomson of South Africa, Nancy Ip of China, Christine Petit of France, Lucia Mendonça Previato of Brazil and Philippa Marrack of the United States.

Fellowships of $20,000 each for 2004 went to 15 young scientists - three from each of five regions: Africa, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and North America, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

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