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Kamala Sarup: Women And AIDS-World AIDS Day

Women And AIDS-World AIDS Day

By Kamala Sarup

HIV/AIDs prevention programme cannot be successful and sustainable in Nepal unless women are financially dependent and are in a position to control what happens to their own bodies.

Armed conflict, widespread abuse of women's rights and illicit trafficking of girls and women are major reasons leading to increasing discrimination against women.

Nepal desperately needs a new and comprehensive approach to both women's rights and deal with HIV/AIDS crises. HIV/AIDS prevention programme, to be truly effective, must include parallel economic and educational initiatives for women. If HIV continues to infect younger women, it will have an all-round effect on our economic development and also on the overall income of the family. HIV related illness and death create new poverty and national indebtedness. Recent reports say as much as 62,000 people in Nepal are infected with HIV virus. Although HIV cases are rising, the government is yet to provide sufficient funds to combat the syndrome. Apart from the Kathmandu Valley, HIV infection is concentrated in urbanised areas and districts in the mid-west and far Western region.

The low status accorded to women in Nepal contributes to their vulnerability by limiting access to the means and resources that they need to protect themselves, such as knowledge and awareness and health care services. For women living in Nepal, the situation is particularly worrisome. Commercial sex continues to be illegal in most of the Asian countries including in Nepal, but it is often hidden and clandestine work, which makes prevention interventions difficult.

So, how can we overcome the social responses to fear, denial, stigma and discrimination that accompany this epidemic? We cannot let another International AIDS Day to come and go without understanding that women's economic and social inequality kills young girls and women. Today marks an urgent occasion to mobilize the governments and international agencies to do what is smart and what is right.

The worldwide HIV/AIDS scourge is now approximately 25 years old. What began in Africa and reached San Francisco and New York as the "Gay Plague" in the bad, old, ignorant days is now a worldwide epidemic primarily killing young women in poor countries in Asia and Africa.

There have been enormous advances in research, medical treatments and drug protocols that have opened useful, productive lives for tens of thousands of people and women who would have received a death sentence in the old days. But these drug treatments are expensive, require great discipline to stick to, and are unaffordable to vast numbers of the population.

There have been significant disputes between Western pharmaceutical manufacturers who have invested billions of dollars in research to make new drugs and poor nations who have violated patents to get treatments to their citizens. Is there a right and wrong in these disputes? Depends on where one is.

The fear-mongers who attached their own religious and political agendas to the HIV/AIDS epidemics have largely been sidelined. Most people in the developed world realise the nature of the disease and know people who have been affected by or died from it. The developing world now has to deal with ignorance and many social taboos in treating the disease. There has been progress in treating HIV/AIDS worldwide, but it comes more slowly than many would prefer.

If, as many suspect, there may be pandemic in the world near future, the fight against HIV/AIDS may contain some useful lessons. Until people start dying who policy makers know and care about, little will be done. That is the lesson of HIV/AIDS in the last 25 years.

A woman's health, if well cared for, can help promote peace in practical terms. We should not forget that political instability, and political crisis have an undeniable impact upon women's health. A sick and vulnerable population including women promotes social instability. Investing in the health sector makes good sense for conflict prevention. It will also help societies to be well aware of the risks involved with HIV/AIDS and implement programmes to fight against it in a concerted way.


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