Ashley Judd, a well-known actor and feminist activist, testified at a recent Congressional hearing on the urgent need to address issues of gender equality in the fight against HIV/AIDS in developing countries. At a hearing primarily focused on the potential for developing an AIDS vaccine, Judd spoke on behalf of young women and girls, bringing much needed attention to the connection between HIV/AIDS prevention and women’s empowerment. “Having an AIDS vaccine would be of great benefit to women of all ages because it could reduce their chances of becoming infected,” Judd told the committee in her concluding remarks. “As there is not a vaccine to prevent abuse of women, however, there is nothing more important in the struggle against this disease than reversing destructive social norms that endanger women across Africa and in other developing countries.”
Judd is a self-identified feminist who appeared on the Spring 2003 cover of Ms. magazine wearing a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. Judd began her career as an activist in the Equal Rights Amendment campaign.
Judd has traveled throughout Africa and Asia to educate young people, especially women and girls, about HIV/AIDS through her post as Global Ambassador for YouthAIDS. She is also on the Board of Directors of Population Services International. In her testimony on Thursday, Judd pointed to several factors increasing young women and girls’ risk of HIV infection, including sexual violence, economic hardship, and the rising trend of “cross generational sex,” a practice in which young women and girls engage in sexual relationships with older men as a means of financial survival.
Further, rates of HIV infection among young women continue to rise. Judd referred to a recent finding that young women in Africa are six times more likely to become infected than their male counterparts. In fact, young women now account for 60 percent of those infected with HIV worldwide in the 15-24 age range, according to the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS.
Judd issued “a call to action” to the committee to do more to protect young women and girls from HIV/AIDS. In particular, she called for funding agencies to work with local programs to change harmful “social norms and practices” that perpetuate women’s inequality. She urged that foreign aid contributions be tied to a country’s commitment to enforcing laws against sexual violence and that we do more to strengthen and enforce laws against sex trafficking. “I do believe our greatest export is our ideas, gender equality being the most important one,” said Judd.