Feature story

Launch of African women’s leadership network aims to advance gender equality and AIDS response

24 May 2012

Zimbabwean President HE Robert Mugabe addresses participants at the opening of the GlobalPOWER Woman Network Africa meeting in Harare. Joining the President were UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. 24 May 2012.
Credit: UNAIDS/D.Kwande

Leading African women from national ministries and parliaments, the business community, networks of women living with HIV, and civil society and development organizations are in Zimbabwe’s capital to attend the inaugural meeting of the GlobalPOWER Women Network Africa. This women-led initiative will provide a strategic political platform to accelerate HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health and rights responses for women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa.

Across the African continent, women and girls carry a disproportionate burden of the HIV epidemic, constituting 59% of all people living with HIV. In some countries, young women aged 15-24 years are as much as eight times more likely to be HIV-positive than young men. Prevailing gender inequalities, including gender-based violence, socio-economic disparities, and disempowering laws and policies increase women’s and girls’ risk of HIV infection.

Held in collaboration with the African Union and UNAIDS, the meeting was officially opened by HE President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. “One of the objectives of this conference is to call upon governments and partners to mobilize national high-level leadership and country ownership in the mitigation of HIV and sexual and reproductive health,” said President Mugabe. He used his speech to draw attention to the role of men in fully supporting women in accessing health services and helping change the inequalities faced by women and girls.

In his remarks, HE Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai called for greater gender equality. “Fifty-nine percent of people living with HIV in Africa are women—it is imperative we address and mitigate this striking fact. In Zimbabwe, this is mainly linked with gender inequality,” said Mr Tsvangirai. “Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole will benefit greatly from addressing gender inequality, which, coupled with lack of education and economic empowerment, hinders women’s active participation in the development agenda."

This inaugural meeting of the GlobalPower Women Network Africa comes at a critical time. It is perfectly positioned as a strategic political platform to advance innovative approaches that positively impact the lives of women and girls in Africa

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé

Addressing participants, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé highlighted the important role of the women’s network in accelerating the AIDS response. “This inaugural meeting of the GlobalPower Women Network Africa comes at a critical time,” said Mr Sidibé. “It is perfectly positioned as a strategic political platform to advance innovative approaches that positively impact the lives of women and girls in Africa. And not just in relation to HIV but also to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights and zero tolerance for gender-based violence.”

Over the next two days, more than 300 participants will engage in a series of plenary discussions and panels surrounding key issues impacting the lives of women and girls across the continent. These include HIV prevention, maternal and child health, gender-based violence, gender equality, leadership accountability, and national ownership of the UNAIDS Action Agenda for Women and Girls. Examples of successful approaches will also be shared to foster greater innovation in the delivery of services.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, emphasized the intrinsic link between maternal and child health and human rights. “When women’s rights are violated, it stops them from leading a healthy and prosperous life—it takes away their freedom of choice to have or start a family,” she said. Ms Pillay also stressed that gender-based violence and stigma and discrimination impedes women’s access to maternal health services.

Nigerian Minister of finance Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Lweala addressing the delegates at the official opening of the Global Power Woman Network Africa in Harare at Harare International Conference Center on 24 May 2012.
Credit: UNAIDS/D.Kwande

Zimbabwe’s Deputy Prime Minister, Hon Thokozani Khupe, also acting as the President of the GlobalPOWER Women Network Africa, drew attention to the central role of women and girls in the AIDS response across the continent. “To achieve the vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths, it is critical to recognize women and girls as key agents in making this vision a reality. Society has to invest in the health of women and girls,” said Ms Khupe.

Representing the African Union Commission at the meeting, Deputy Chairperson, HE Erastus Mwencha, stated, “The burden of HIV cannot be successfully undertaken without paying due attention to issues of reproductive health and rights. Individuals, families and communities must have a say in the implementation of programmes."

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, was the Guest of Honour at the opening and delivered the keynote address. In her remarks, she told participants that a country’s progress is linked to the health of its female population.

"Any country that neglects investing in women and girls should not expect real growth. It is smart economics to invest in girls’ education, health and social well-being as no woman should die of [AIDS] and child birth,” she said,  "We can make a difference in Africa, and change is already happening—but we women have to push harder for greater change because no one can do it for us. This is why the GlobalPOWER Africa is so important. We need our women leaders to call for investment in women and girls and monitor how money is spent.”

We can make a difference in Africa, and change is already happening—but we women have to push harder for greater change because no one can do it for us

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Minister of Finance

The meeting will result in the “Harare Call for Action”, a unified action plan for women’s health with a specific focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the context of HIV. The Call for Action will serve as an important political and advocacy tool, strongly promoting regional ownership and shared responsibility to advance the AIDS response and the wider gender equality agenda.

The idea to create an Africa-specific GlobalPOWER Women Network stemmed from a September 2010 meeting in Washington, DC. At that meeting prominent African female decision-makers came together alongside their American peers to discuss how to accelerate the implementation of the UNAIDS Agenda for Women and Girls. The GlobalPOWER initiative was founded in 2006 by the Center for Women Policy Studies, a US-based women’s organization.

Several other high-level representatives attended the launch of the women’s network including the United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles A. Ray, the Vice-President of Zimbabwe, Hon Joyce Mujuru, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Hon Professor Arthur Mutambara. A message of support was received from the Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet.