UNAIDS Introduces Plan to Promote Women’s Rights Through Combating HIV

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This post is by the Global Center’s Rabita Aziz.

UNAIDS has launched a five-year action plan to address gender inequalities and human rights violations that put women and girls at risk of HIV infection.  The Agenda for Accelerated Country Action for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV calls on the UN system to support governments, civil society and development partners in reinforcing country actions to put women and girls at the center of the AIDS response, and to ensure that their rights are protected.  This new operational plan identifies key actions which build on initiatives already in place, with the aim to support women and girls to claim their rights and to meet their HIV-related needs. 

Dr. Jantine Jacobi, the new head of the Gender and AIDS team at UNAIDS, joined with Center for Health and Gender Equality President Serra Sippel to present the Agenda to a room-full of women’s rights and global health advocates on Wednesday.  Jacobi expressed her agreement with UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, who said, “Violence against women is unacceptable and must not be tolerated… By robbing them of their dignity, we are losing the opportunity to tap half the potential of mankind to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Women and girls are not victims, they are the driving force that brings about social transformation.” 

The lack of control over their own sexuality that many women face is in part a result of other barriers they face,  such as in access to education or jobs, property ownership, and in cultural norms that limit their control over their own reproductive lives.   Sexual violence is a very real threat for many women and greatly increases their vulnerability to HIV infection.  To emphasis this point, Dr. Jacobi stated that a woman gets raped every single minute in South Africa.  Furthermore, HIV prevalence among young women aged 15–24 years is on average about three times higher than among men of the same age in South Africa, while 60 percent of people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women.  HIV is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age worldwide.  These stark numbers illustrate the urgent need to address women’s rights in relation to the HIV epidemic, and reverse these disturbing trends. 

The Agenda was developed through a consultative process conducted by the Global Task Force on Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV, and led by Professor Sheila Tlou, former Minister of Health of Botswana, and Michel Sidibe.  The Global Task Force and its working groups are comprised of high-level leaders and experts from 51 countries, including representatives from civil rights and women’s rights groups, government, academia, the UN system, and networks of women living with HIV.  The Agenda focuses on country-level action, and highlights opportunities to work with networks of women living with HIV and diverse women’s groups, while engaging men and boys.  It is structured around three issues:

  • Knowing, understanding and responding to the particular and various effects of the HIV epidemic on women and girls.
  • Translating political commitments into scaled-up action to address the rights and needs of women and girls in the context of HIV
  • An enabling community for the fulfillment of women’s and girls’ human rights and their empowerment, in the context of HIV.

The Agenda identifies 26 actions that should be undertaken to address these issues.  Some of these include:

  • Equip and support women’s groups and networks of women living with HIV to collect and use data on how the epidemic affects women and girls in order to monitor programs to assess their human rights impact and to contribute to national data collection.
  • Facilitate the launch of “know your rights” campaigns and support the provision of free and accessible legal aid services to enable women and girls to claim their rights.
  • Advocate for and support access to country-level comprehensive sexuality education that promotes gender equality and that equips young people with the evidence-informed knowledge, skills, and resources necessary to enable them to make responsible choices about their social and sexual relationships. 

Dr. Jacobi described these action steps as a menu from which countries can select and implement actions that work best for them.  The operational plan will first be rolled out in Liberia.  UNAIDS aims to have their teams implementing at least one component of the action agenda in 30 countries by the end of this year. 

Women’s organizations are enthusiastic about the Agenda.  When asked about her general impression of the Agenda, Jamila Taylor, a women’s rights advocate said, “I can say that the plan looks promising and that women’s groups are looking forward to working with UNAIDS as the plan is operationalized.  I commend UNAIDS for prioritizing women, and dedicating the resources in order to instigate action behind the words.”   When asked what the biggest gap is in U.S. leadership in addressing key concerns in women’s rights and HIV, Dr. Jacobi stated that a restriction on funding is the biggest problem.

Read the Agenda here.

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