Women and HIV: New Commitments on an Old Issue?


A change was made to this article at 11:19 am, Wednesday, April 21 to correct a typographical error.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS recently launched an action plan that targets the AIDS pandemic where it is most devastating: among women. This five-year Agenda for Accelerated Action for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV, recognizing the feminization of the AIDS pandemic, sees addressing the social, cultural, and legal inequities that place women and girls at a higher risk of contracting the virus as key to curbing the spread of the pandemic. However, the feminization of the epidemic is “old news,” as are statistics about the legal and social factors that put women at risk. What is new about the UNAIDS Agenda is its refusal to relegate these issues to a sidebar. The Agenda insists that all serious efforts to attack global AIDS must radically advance attention to women and girls.

Moreover, the Agenda recognizes that addressing the inequalities that put women’s health in jeopardy requires a collaborative commitment from governments, nongovernmental organizations, civil society, and donors. These groups must work together to prioritize the protection of women’s rights, and to engage women and place women themselves at the center of HIV interventions, especially positive women.

The Agenda is intended to provide locally-based UN agencies guidance on action they “can take in collaboration with governments, civil society and development partners to make national AIDS policies and programs more responsible to the specific needs, and more protective of the rights of women and girls.” This includes integrating HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment with all other areas of health and development including sexual and reproductive health. 

The Agenda also focuses on capacity-building and development of community-based women’s organizations – in particular those of women living with HIV and AIDS. It acknowledges that women living with the virus are already experts in what they need, and therefore in the most effective position to counsel government., Equally important, monitoring and accountability is best done by empowering those affected by the policy.

UNAIDS has provided a plan and a framework for action on what we all have known needs immediate attention—the disparate impact of HIV/AIDS on women because of institutionalized gender inequality. The U.S. government—be it members of Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services, or those working in Foggy Bottom— must not just support the Agenda, but champion it.  This means more than leveraging financial resources, it means aligning the U.S. HIV/AIDS domestic and global policies for women and girls with the UNAIDS Agenda.

Much of this is already a planned part of U.S. strategy. The U.S. government must ensure, however, that the policy is not merely rhetoric, but meaningfully engages positive women, allows for transparent monitoring, is truly integrated, and prioritizes the health and rights of women and girls at every step of its implementation.

Both UNAIDS and the U.S. government have adopted ambitious, necessary, and forward-looking policies that have the potential to stem a pandemic and promote human rights. As UNAIDS and the U.S. unite to address the causes of the disproportionate impact of the HIV on women, we must remember that this is not only beneficial for women and girls, but starves the virus of the very kindling that fuels the global HIV epidemic.

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