Women’s Rights Key to Effective Global AIDS Response

A new report by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, an independent body of former world leaders and top legal, human rights and HIV experts, released on the eve of the London Summit, has labeled the global response to the AIDS epidemic as “stifled.”

The ground-breaking account, “HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health,” states that human rights abuses and “penalizing” laws are wasting funds and lives. The Commission, which based its study on research and testimonies from over 1,000 people in 140 countries, finds that every government in every region is guilty of not using legal frameworks in an effective way to fight the epidemic.

It urges governments to urgently strengthen and scale up laws, which in many countries already exist. UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark further explains:

Bad laws should not be allowed to stand in the way of effective HIV responses. In the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, Member States committed to reviewing laws and policies which impede effective HIV responses. One of the key contributions of the Commission’s work has been to stimulate review processes and change in a number of countries.

In many countries, sex work is still criminalized, preventing them from access HIV prevention services. Customs such as female genital mutilation make women powerless over negotiations such as safe sex, and 127 countries do not have any legislation on marital rape. Former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who chairs the Commission states that the prejudice must end:

Too many countries waste vital resources by enforcing archaic laws that ignore science and perpetuate stigma. Now, more than ever, we have a chance to free future generations from the threat of HIV. We cannot allow injustice and intolerance to undercut this progress, especially in these tough economic times.

In fact, right here in the United States, PEPFAR laws and policies favor funding of abstinence-only prevention programs, which we know do not work, and lead to the inadequate use of condoms. Throughout Africa, there are stock outs of condoms because of African and US Governments’ ineffective distribution of condoms. In addition, PEPFAR requires government grantees to abide by an anti-prostitution denying protection to sex-workers.

Although the Commission’s acknowledges the role violence against women plays in making the global HIV/AIDS response more effective, and calls on governments to use laws to end it, it falls short of highlighting just how critical this recommendation is.

In her article, “AIDS-Free Generation? Not Without Women,” President of the Center for Health & Gender Equity (CHANGE), Serra Sippel, says that five years ago, the gendered impact HIV/AIDS intensified when we were not paying attention:

…Women overtook men as the majority of people in the world living with HIV. They’ve held on to that majority and started to take over other areas as well: Young women ages 15-24 account for 75 percent of all new infections in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV is the number one killer of women in their childbearing years, and HIV was responsible for 60,000 maternal deaths in 2008. In the last two years, HIV infections have nearly doubled among African American women in Washington, D.C.

Sippel explains that HIV/AIDS is now a “women’s plague,” and unless our response take that into account we will fail in creating an “AIDS-free generation.”

We have a huge opportunity to get back on the right track next week when the XIX International AIDS Conference takes place in Washington, DC. Commissions and organization can continue to release their reports, but as Sippel warns, we cannot respond correctly to HIV/AIDS without addressing the majority who make up the pandemic: women.

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