Summit on Women and HIV/AIDS in Nairobi

At last year's International AIDS Conference in Toronto, women's issues in the context of HIV and AIDS were prominently seen and heard. "We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women," stated Bill Gates at the opening ceremony, followed by a fierce round of applause. Throughout the conference, female-initiated forms of prevention, such as microbicides, female condoms, and pre-exposure prophylaxis gained widespread publicity. Over 1,000 people attended a rally demanding action for women and girls. It appeared that the feminization of the HIV pandemic was finally being grasped by the global arena.

Twenty-six years into the HIV pandemic, women account for nearly 80 percent of new HIV infections in young people, and women have now surpassed the number of men worldwide living with HIV. While female-controlled modes of HIV prevention such as microbicides and pre-exposure prophylaxis are still undergoing clinical trials, the reality remains that there is still less than one female condom available each year to every sexually active person in need of one. Despite this, nearly half of U.S. Congressional representatives don't believe access to low-cost contraceptives is an important component in the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding, as indicated in their recent support of amendments which keep abstinence-until-marriage earmarks in U.S. foreign aid. Although billions of dollars are poured into HIV prevention and AIDS relief each year, it seems very little of the funding is actually reaching the people in most need of it.

The first-ever International Women's Summit on Women's Leadership and HIV and AIDS, co-hosted by the World YWCA and YWCA of Kenya, will open on July 5 in Nairobi, Kenya. Bringing together leaders such as UNAIDS Executive Director Dr. Peter Piot, WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan, celebrities, activists, and community women, the summit will highlight the difference women's leadership is making on HIV and AIDS, offer an exchange of ideas on programs which are taking place around the world, and demand accountability for future resources to address the feminization of the pandemic.

The summit will begin with a forum exclusively for HIV positive women on July 4, expected to draw 500 women. The larger event will feature workshops and breakout sessions on a variety of topics including women's rights, investing more resources for women, addressing violence against women in the context of HIV and AIDS, women and religion, and ensuring women's representation in decision making. A plenary session on the final day of the summit is called "If Women Really Matter, Where's the Leadership and the Money?"

Coincidentally, the final day of the summit, July 7, 2007, also represents the mid-point of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. So how are we doing on Goal #3: Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women and Goal #7: Combating HIV and AIDS and other diseases? Will the summit itself be instrumental in bringing women's issues in the context of HIV to international attention? Are we at a turning point in recognizing that women's specific needs matter and need to be addressed? I am optimistic, but as they say in Kenya, polepole—slowly, slowly—we will get there. The question remains—will we get there in time?

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    There needs to be leadership for women in the community to prevent this disturbing disproportion of female HIV infection. Fortunately, this summit will educate hundreds of women about what needs to be done to prevent these high female infection rates. Gender empowerment is crucial, and strengthening female community health workers will provide women with more support in preventing HIV infection and treating AIDS. However, one of the biggest problems to scaling up access to treatment and prevention in Africa is the shortage of health workers. Women will not have effective prevention and treatment without a sustainable health system that is supported by a strong health workforce. Currently, there is a bill in Congress, the African Health Capacity Investment Act, which will provide funding to address the health worker shortage. Here is a more in depth explanation of the bill:

    Hopefully, the bill will pass and more health workers will be trained in Africa to combat the high female infection rates as well as treat those who are already infected.