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Women, girls and HIV/AIDS: A time for action

Published:Sunday | November 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Glenda Simms, Contributor

Informed by the research data that have emanated from the many studies, commissions and high-level debates, the United Nations has made a concerted effort to refocus on the outstanding issues of women and girls' unequal status. This inequality has historically and contemporarily been reinforced by the strength of the patriarchal dispensation that has determined the rigidity of the gendered dynamics of all the societies in the global village.

In order to address these issues, the United Nations has decided to make every effort to address continuing injustices that characterise the lives of women and girls by using the responses to the AIDS pandemic "to improve the existing situation of the world's women and girls".

To this end, the UN, through its specialised agencies (in particular to UNAIDS and UNIFEM), has put in place an "agenda for accelerated country action for women, girls, gender equality and HIV".

This agenda was formulated in 2009 when UNAIDS convened meetings of representatives of women groups including positive women's networks, men who are committed to gender equality, government policymakers, academic institutions, and the specialised UN agencies.

Much urgency

This broad-based representation of experts deliberated under the leadership of the executive director of UNAIDS.

It is with much urgency that the UN has rolled out the 2010 agenda for accelerated country action in every region of the world.

The numerous sources of information garnered from state parties' periodic reports to the committee responsible for monitoring the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the committee which monitors the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the shadow reports of non-governmental organisations and the rich body of academic research on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, all come together to reinforce the UN assessment of the status of women and girls worldwide.

This most recent agenda for accelerated country action on HIV/AIDS is based on the fact that "in most societies, women and girls face power imbalances, unequal opportunities, discrimination and violation of their human rights, including widespread violence inside and outside of the home".

It has been an established fact that these factors are directly related to the vulnerability of women and girls to the HIV infection.

In formulating the planned actions at the country level, the UN has conceptualised a holistic process which will include government, civil society, and development partners.

All of these stakeholders are being encouraged to "make national AIDS policies and programmes more responsive to the specific needs of women and girls".

The accelerated country action, which will become the launching pad for future interventions, is informed by the realisation that "nearly 30 years into the HIV pandemic, HIV programmes and policies do not sufficiently address the specific realities and needs of women and girls". In the new dispensation, those who make the decisions on programmes for intervention and prevention in the fight against HIV are directed to recognise women's inherent human rights to sexual and reproductive health care, freedom from grinding poverty, self-respect, personal dignity and body integrity, peace, justice, and access to adequate resources and freedom from all forms of violence in both the public and private spheres.

The review of the data available on the situation of Jamaican women and girls in the HIV/AIDS pandemic points to the fact that in our society, young women in the 10-to-19 age group are three times more likely to be infected than boys in this age band. This state of affairs was highlighted in the UNICEF 2006 Discussion on Excluded Children in Jamaica. This is also a focus of the generic training syllabus of the National HIV/STI2010 programme.

Troubling reality

This database, which informs the policymakers in the health, educational, and social sectors, highlights the troubling reality that very young girls become victims of HIV because they are having sexual relationships with older men. These are extremely dangerous liaisons. And the conditions that foster these must be tackled head-on if the society is to maximise the potential of the young women who need to keep healthy if they are to become agents of change in our search for prosperity and the better life.

It has been pointed out in the UNAIDS and WHO December 2004 AIDS epidemic update on HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa and in the Caribbean region that inter-generational heterosexual sexual activities are one of the main drivers of the HIV infection in very young girls.

It has also been determined by many of the relevant agencies in the countries investigated that sexual liaisons are not necessarily consensual. Oftentimes they are the result of forced sexual activity and sexual abuse such as rape, incest, and carnal abuse.

Within this context, the agenda for accelerated country action should serve as an efficient and effective approach to deal with the continued search for answers regarding the unequal gender relations in Jamaica.

Deliberate directive

The deliberate directive to encourage the United Nations joint team on AIDS to focus on the role of civil society as a powerful change agent to move women and girls from their current disadvantaged position in the HIV/AIDS pandemic is a sound approach.

It has been long recognised that it is at the level of the community that women and girls confront their greatest challenges.

They are the nurturers, caregivers, sisters, daughters, mothers, sweethearts, wives, and grandmothers who care for the orphaned children, the sick widows, the sexually abused children, and the pregnant teenagers.

Against this background, it is reasonable to expect a vibrant, well-articulated programme of action that will put the focus on the precarious position of women and girls as they face the growing overrepresentation of very young girls as victims of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the Jamaican society.

There is now a real opportunity for all those who purport to be committed to women's human rights to join forces with the UN country team to seize the opportunity to move from word to action.

Dr Glenda Simms is a consultant on gender issues. Feedback may be sent to