Putting Women First in the Fight against Global HIV/AIDS

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Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) brought together a number of panelists from various administration agencies and NGOs at an event called “Linkages between Gender, AIDS, and Development – Implications for U.S. Policy.”  Panelists discussed the importance of placing women’s and girl’s health at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s global health efforts, and how policymakers and implementers can integrate programming that has already been proven to be effective, into the new Global Health Initiative. 

Ambassador Eric Goosby, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, opened up the event by stating that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and focusing on women and girls when implementing programs to fight HIV/AIDS will yield positive results for not only women and girls but entire communities. 

According to Goosby, 62 percent of individuals on PEPFAR-supported treatment are women.  PEPFAR will start new women-focused programs next year, such as a new gender-based violence initiative, and the PEPFAR Gender Challenge Fund, which makes an additional $8 million available for strengthening gender-based programs.

Ambassador Goosby explained that the Obama Administration’s new Global Health Initiative will build off existing programs to ensure that the necessary linkages are made to integrate family planning, reproductive health, and HIV/AIDS services.  He explained that women and girls should have access to a ‘one-stop-shop’ for services.  In addition to making more services available, Goosby underlined the importance of engaging in diplomatic dialogue with leaders to encourage them to address discriminatory laws and practices against women.

The resounding message of the day was the importance of integrating reproductive health services, family planning services, maternal and child health services, and HIV/AIDS services all in one synergistic package to ensure that women and girls in developing countries have all the tools they need to protect their wellbeing. 

Dr. Marsden Solomon of Family Health International (FHI) in Kenya explained the necessity of integrating such services by citing that 60 percent of their HIV/AIDS patients have unmet family planning needs.  He went on to explain that integrating HIV/AIDS and family planning services reduces unintended pregnancies, prevents vertical transmission, and improves maternal and child health overall.  FHI began integrating their HIV/AIDS and family planning services in 2001.  Their services include ARV and PMTCT treatment, STI treatment, pre and post-natal care, cervical cancer screening, and post-rape care, among others.

Amie Batson, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Global Health of the USAID, argued that women’s health should be promoted not just in health-related programs, but in economic growth programs, education initiatives, and in governance as well.  Health service accessibility should be expanded as well: commodities should be available at more locations, such as at kiosks or beauty salons.

A number of panelists emphasized the importance of integrating HIV/AIDS services and prevention techniques into economic development programs as a way to address both economic and health disparities.  Lufono Muvhango and Julia Kim described their successes in battling both HIV/AIDS and economic underdevelopment with the Image Program in South Africa.  The program not only provides microfinance loans to women in villages, but also implements gender training programs which aim to empower women to have the confidence needed to fight against sexual violence. 

In South Africa, it is estimated  that a quarter of women are living in abusive relationships.  Women involved in abusive relationships are 50 percent more likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS, compared to women who do not fall victim to intimate partner violence.  After reaching out to 12,000 women in 160 villages in South Africa, the Image Program has not only seen a significant increase in HIV/AIDS awareness, but has seen a 55 percent reduction in the risk of physical and sexual violence.

Pearl-Alice Marsh, the majority professional staff member for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, stated that there are two major issues blocking progress in women’s health and HIV/AIDS concerns.  The first is funding: Marsh stressed that advocates must continue to pressure Congress to maintain their financial commitments, as well as help African nations get a handle on their budgeting so they can contribute more to the fight against HIV/AIDS and increase their ownership.  The second issue deals with global women’s health being a proxy for anti-abortion advocacy.  Marsh explained that letting ideology and politics get in the way of women’s health amounts to femicide, and more should be done to ensure that such rhetoric does not hinder progress in global women’s health.

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