One of the main topics of discussion during President Bush’s trip to Africa is HIV/AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to most of the more than 42-million people living with the disease. In fact, South Africa alone, Mr. Bush’s second stop, is believed to have about five million people infected with HIV. Some on calling on President Bush to learn more about the pandemic on the continent by talking with African women.
Most of those infected with HIV – the AIDS virus – are women. Stephanie Urdang is adviser on gender and HIV/AIDS for UNIFEM, the U-N Development Fund for Women.
She says, "In order to really get a sense of what the needs are on the ground, it is so important to talk to women. Because women are both infected and affected. They’re infected at a higher rate in sub-Saharan Africa than men are – 58 percent of those living with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are women. And that it’s become a really critical issue both in terms of their own illness and sickness in coping with the disease, as well as the fact that in their families there are sick members and they have to do the caring."
Inequality, poverty and the burden of care, according to UNIFEM, have increased the impact of HIV/AIDS. Ms. Urdang says, for example, if the issue of poverty were tackled it would go a long way toward slowing the pandemic.
She says, "Any program that addresses poverty levels, any program that works at women’s economic empowerment I think will have an impact on HIV/AIDS or the reversal of the epidemic whether it specifically does so or not. So that these are huge issues because as we know in poverty women don’t have and families don’t have access to medical care. In poverty, there’s not enough food and nutrition, so that when people are ill they are likely to die more quickly. In poverty, women have to turn to sex work very often, often just as transactional sex on the moment or actually as full time sex workers because that’s the only way they can feed their families. And this is another way in which the epidemic is spread. Dealing with the core issue of poverty is very, very important."
The Positive Women’s Network – an organization of HIV positive women on the continent – offers some recommendations. They call for greater participation in decision-making regarding HIV/AIDS policy, training and education, economic equality and an end to stigma and discrimination.
She says, "Women are very, very determined, very, very courageous. And that they will make spaces for their voices to be heard. There needs to be a forum in which their voices are heard much more clearly."
UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer says, “If there is one vaccine that exists today, it is women’s empowerment.” “Focusing on women,” she says, “is the key to reversing the AIDS crisis.”