Feature story

Prioritising gender equality in response to AIDS in Liberia

13 April 2012

Women returning from a farm with vegetables to be sold in a market on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia.
Credit: VII Photo/Marcus Bleasdale

Cynthia Quaqua is a mother, wife, the president of the Liberian Women’s Empowerment Network (LIWEN), and, perhaps most importantly, a survivor. Raped by soldiers during the Liberian civil war, she became pregnant as a young woman. Years later she fell ill and was diagnosed with HIV. Suddenly, she found herself abandoned by her relatives even began discussing where to bury her.

Fortunately, a Lutheran pastor gave her a place to live and directed her to a clinic where she could receive HIV treatment. She then found social support through a women’s group, where members had, like her, experienced sexual violence. Today, Cynthia is a picture of health and a powerful presence, taking her anti-retroviral medications twice daily. “The support from other women showed me that I was not alone and has allowed me to come this far,” she said.

Although Liberia is on the recovery from conflict, sexual violence remains prevalent. Research shows that 29% of ever married women experienced physical or sexual violence from a male intimate partner in the last 12 months.

The support from other women showed me that I was not alone and allowed me to come this far

Cynthia Quaqua. President of the Liberian Women’s Empowerment Network

Violence is both cause and consequence of women’s vulnerability to HIV. In Liberia, women account for 58% of all adults living with HIV. Young women and girls are particularly affected with an HIV prevalence more than double that of their male peers. The stigma associated with HIV and gender based violence is a major barrier to women accessing and adhering to HIV treatment and prevention services.

The President of Liberia and first ever female elected head of government in African, H.E. Ellen Sirleaf Johnson,  has put gender equality and the empowerment of women at the centre of Liberia’s post-conflict and development agenda. Liberia was the first country to put into practice the UNAIDS Agenda for Women and Girls, setting strategic priorities for supporting women and girls’ rights, and gender equality through HIV responses.

Equally, the national response to HIV is prioritising gender equality as a smart investment for more effective programmes, under the leadership of the Minister of Gender and Development Julia Duncan Cassell. “We are fully cognizant that if the issues of HIV are to be fully addressed in Liberia, Africa and the rest of the world, we need to empower women living with HIV and get them involved at all levels,” said Mrs Cassell.

Cynthia Quaqua is a mother, wife, the president of the Liberian Women’s Empowerment Network, and, perhaps most importantly, a survivor.
Credit: UNAIDS

A mid-term review of the implementation of the national operational plan took place in Monrovia the first week of April involving partners from government, civil society, faith-based organisations, networks of women living with HIV and the UN system.

The review found that significant progress had been made in generating and maintaining political commitment to address HIV and sexual violence in Liberia. Data collection on sexual and gender based violence has increased and reporting structures have been harmonized, allowing for the routine collection of strategic information to inform national programmes.

Since the launch of the operational plan, government Ministries have put in place HIV and Gender co-ordination offices with domestic resources to champion HIV and gender programming, and HIV, gender and sexual and reproductive health services has been integrated into national polices. A coalition of actors has been established to address gender based violence and HIV, as well as contributing to addressing gender based violence broadly. The coalition meets monthly to monitor progress of activities.

We are fully cognizant that if the issues of HIV are to be fully addressed in Liberia, Africa and the rest of the world, we need to empower women living with HIV and get them involved at all levels

Minister of Gender and Development Julia Duncan Cassell

Other positive developments include the active engagement of associations and networks of women living with HIV in addressing sexual and gender based violence and increasing access to integrated HIV and health services for women.

But challenges remain, including the need to increase access to sufficient domestic financial resources and more effective coordination of different actors to maximise collective impact.

“UNAIDS and its co-sponsors recommit to intensify efforts against HIV and sexual violence by focusing on developing mutual accountability for results, partnerships for country ownership and generating program efficiencies through innovation and integration,” said David Chipanta, UNAIDS Country Co-ordinator for Liberia.