HIV/AIDS Is Your Problem
A look at why HIV/AIDS needs to be on the agenda of every organization working for women's rights and social justice. By Kathambi Kinoti. Resource Net Friday File Issue 25, November 2005
HIV/AIDS is about as much a health issue as Hurricane Katrina was a weather issue. It is not just a disease that affects the well being of individuals. It is a scourge with enormous social, economic and human rights repercussions, not only on those infected, but also on entire communities and the world as a whole.
Although in other parts of the world antiretroviral drugs and good health systems mean that an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence, in Africa it usually is. Many nations are facing a decimation of their populations. In Botswana and Swaziland, 40% of pregnant women tested for the virus had it.  The leaders of Botswana, Lesotho and Zambia have respectively described what their countries are fighting as an extermination, an annihilation and a holocaust.  Apart from death, HIV/AIDS also brings with it the promise of perpetual poverty.
The feminization of HIV/AIDS is well recognized. As Glenys Kinnock, British Socialist member of the European Parliament (MEP) recently told delegates at the 'Owning Development: Promoting Gender Equality in New Modalities and Partnerships' conference:
''We must acknowledge that we are failing to embrace gender equality and in some parts of the world, gender inequality and AIDS is a preordained
equation of death,''  For every one African boy who is infected with the virus, there are six girls. Women are more vulnerable to infection due to their biological make-up and their disadvantaged social and economic position which means, among other things, that safe sex is often not an option for them. They are also the primary care-givers who, even when they themselves are suffering from the disease, take care of infected family members. When their adult children die, grandmothers end up taking care of their orphaned grandchildren.
Although the female face of HIV/AIDS is recognized, women social justice activists in the global South are concerned that their Northern counterparts are not adequately making the links between the work they are doing and the HIV/AIDS threat. According to Monique Wanjala Tondoi, of the organization Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK), the epidemic has gone far beyond being a health problem. It is true that the health care needs of women and their access to inexpensive or free treatment must be urgently addressed. However the effects of the disease spread into every conceivable aspect of life in the countries most affected. Ms Tondoi says that all the gains that have been made in relation to women's rights and gender equality are at the risk of being undone by the devastation of the disease. This is because poverty, gender inequality and HIV/AIDS are inextricably linked. In a speech given at the University of Pennsylvania's Summit on Global Issues in Women's Health in April 2005, Stephen Lewis the UN Special Envoy on HIV and AIDS in Africa described a visit that he and the Executive Director of the World Food Programme had made to southern Africa in January 2003. He said: ''We had surmised, at the outset, that we would be dealing primarily with drought and erratic rainfall, but in the field it became apparent that to a devastating extent, agricultural productivity and household food security were being clobbered by AIDS. We were shocked by the human toll, the numbers of orphans, and the pervasive death amongst the female population. In fact, so distressed were we about the decimation of women, that we appealed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to personally intervene.'' There is no way that women in developing countries are going to be economically, legally and socially empowered if HIV/AIDS is not addressed. The highest rates of infection are found in the most economically productive sector of the population in Africa. According to Ms Tondoi, HIV/AIDS should be regarded as core business for everyone, not just for those, who like her, are infected with the virus. It needs to be integrated into every women's rights program. She says that it does not make sense to ensure free and fair global trade when women are no longer offering their goods and services in the marketplace, but are sick or busy caring for the sick. It does not make sense to fight for girls' equal right to education when they have to stay home from school to take care of their siblings orphaned by AIDS. It does not make sense to ensure equal political participation for women if there are no people to fill political posts.
Most of the resources, however inadequate, for HIV/AIDS programs in the developing countries come from Northern governments, and therefore from the
Northern taxpayer's pocket. If for no other reason, argues Ms Tondoi, Northern feminists need to ensure that their taxes are properly utilized by insisting that HIV/AIDS is efficiently and adequately tackled. She says that the development arms of the governments of developing countries have realized that HIV/.AIDS needs to be a cross-cutting issue in all their funding projects. However they are not doing enough. For instance, they need to go beyond financing awareness-raising campaigns to strengthen referral systems for HIV/AIDS patients and caregivers, and to assist in providing support for long-term and sustainable income-generating activities.
Mr Lewis also has some suggestions for ways to lend support to the war against HIV/AIDS:
- Advocating for compensation for caregivers of people living with HIV/AIDS.
- Collaboration on efforts to produce microbicides to lessen the vulnerability of women to HIV infection.
- Advocating for reform of the UN, where UNIFEM, the agency that is concerned with women's development, is itself marginalized.
- Lobbying the African political leadership to be engaged in women's health issues.
- Co-ordination of efforts to fight the HIV/AIDS plague.
1. See 'Women and AIDS: Confronting the Crisis,' 2004: New York: UNAIDS,
UNFPA and UNIFEM.
2. Reported by Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, in a
speech given at the University of Pennsylvania's Summit on Global Issues in
Women's Health in April 2005.
3. Bianchi, Stephania. 'EU Urged to 'Refocus' Gender Efforts.' November 9,