Feature story

Call for leaders to champion the needs of women and girls in HIV policy and programming

10 June 2011

Thematic panel discussion, “Women, Girls, and HIV”, which focuses on the disproportionate burden of HIV that is carried by women and girls around the world. (Left to right): Stephanie Nolan, journalist at the “Globe and Mail”; Hanno Pevkur, Minister of Social Affairs for Estonia; and Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Health for the Republic of South Africa. UN Headquarters in New York, 9 June 2011
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Women, girls and HIV was the theme of a high level panel which was held at the United Nations on Thursday 9 June. The event, which forms part of the UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS, was chaired by Hanno Pevkur, Minister of Social Affairs, Estonia.

The interactive discussion was moderated by Stephanie Nolen and the high level panel included Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Health, Republic of South Africa; Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, represented the United Nations; and Siphiwe Hlophe, the co-founder of the non-governmental organization Swaziland for Positive Living.

“In 30 years of dealing with HIV,” explained Mr Pevkur, “we have learned that it is as much a social as a medical problem; and the lack of quality of sexual reproductive health and rights services, violence, harmful cultural practices, are fuelling the epidemic.”

We will not attain a sustainable response if we do not invest in women with education and economic empowerment

Siphiwe Hlophe, the co-founder of the non-governmental organization Swaziland for Positive Living

To explore the issue, the panellists and speakers from the floor responded to a series of questions and identified strategies that will help the HIV response to spark social transformation for women and girls to secure their human rights and protect themselves against HIV. They discussed ways to ensure that the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls are adequately addressed in the response to HIV.

Unequal opportunities

In many societies, women face barriers in accessing HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services due to limited decision-making power, lack of control over financial resources, restricted mobility and unequal care responsibilities. Lack of education is another major barrier; around two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate adults are women.

“We will not attain a sustainable response if we do not invest in women with education and economic empowerment,” said Ms Hlophe who highlighted need to engage communities including at the rural level so that all women are empowered. There was consensus that comprehensive sexuality education, which includes HIV education, is a key component of effective evidence-informed HIV prevention. Such education should be made available in a non judgemental, youth-friendly way, to adolescents and young people in and out of schools, and must include human rights and gender equality.

Challenge violence against women

One of the event findings was that stopping AIDS requires acting to stop violence against women at every level. “Violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of HIV,” said Minister Pevkur. The participants discussed how to better address the linkages between violence against women and girls and HIV as well as the social determinants that increase their vulnerability to HIV infection.

The risk of HIV among women who have experienced violence may be up to three times higher than those who have not. The prevalence of forced first sex among adolescent girls below 15 years ranges between 11% and 45% globally. Laws and policies that prevent and punish violence against women, including harmful traditional norms, and effective implementation, are paramount the speakers concluded.

Ensure access to comprehensive HIV and sexual and reproductive health services

There were calls for political leaders and stakeholders to champion “women- and girl- tailored” approaches in policy and programming. Another recommendation was the need to ensure that women in all their diversity, including adolescent girls and young women, have access to comprehensive HIV and sexual and reproductive health services, free of violence, discrimination, and coercion.

Uphold women’s human rights

It is crucial for governments to commit to fulfil all women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights. There is an urgent need for a clear target which views women in their entirety, across their lifespan, and not solely as mothers.

Invest in women and girls                    

The discussion also highlighted the need for greater and sustainable investment in the leadership of women and girls, as well as in strengthening women’s rights organizations and networks of women living with HIV, is needed to achieve the meaningful engagement of women and girls in the response to HIV

UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS

Thirty years into the AIDS epidemic, and 10 years since the landmark UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, the world has come together to review progress and chart the future course of the global AIDS response at the 2011 UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS from 8–10 June 2011 in New York. Member States are expected to adopt a new Declaration that will reaffirm current commitments and commit to actions to guide and sustain the global AIDS response.