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Progress On Women's Health Painfully Slow, Says UN Envoy

The UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa says progress on women’s health issues is being made, but at a “painfully” slow pace. He describes the lives of many women as “mercilessly desperate.”

Stephen Lewis made the comments at the recent (4/26) Summit on Global Issues in Women’s Health at the University of Pennsylvania. Using HIV/AIDS as a basis for his comments, he tells the Voice of America why he used such harsh descriptions.

"Women remain terribly vulnerable, disproportionately vulnerable, that they’re dying in huge numbers. It’s a nightmare what’s happening to the women and that the response is not yet energized. It’s all so incremental, it’s all so desperately slow. And, of course, as the women die they leave behind them these huge numbers of children. And so we have an orphan catastrophe as well," he says.

MR. Lewis says he knows why progress has been so slow.

He says, "Yes, I think I accept the analysis of the women’s movement, which says that male power and authority is a difficult thing for men to relinquish."

As a result, he says, in many parts of the world little is done to ensure gender parity or to protect vulnerable women.

"All of it has consequences for women’s physical wellbeing if they’re discriminated against, if they don’t go to school, if they’re yanked out of school to look after sick and dying parents," he says.

During a recent visit to Zambia, the UN envoy visited a small income-generating project near Lusaka for HIV positive women. The women grew cabbages to sell and to supplement their diet. Mr. Lewis says the project was a success – but tempered by strong dose of reality.

He says, "So I went out to see them way down these country trails and they were standing there with a banner over their heads proclaiming their little project. And I said to them this cabbage patch is your income-generating project? And they said yes. And I said you use it for nutrition, use it for food? Absolutely. And I said what do you do with what’s left over? And they said well we take it to the market to sell it. And I said, ah-ha! What do you do with the profits? And they looked at me kind of startled as though it was such an obvious answer. And they said, well, Mr. Lewis, we buy coffins with the profits. We never have enough coffins."

At moments like that, he says he “feels the world has gone mad.”

He says, "Even pregnant women who pass on the virus (HIV) during the birthing process, which is one of the ways infants get infected, only 10 percent of the pregnant women on the continent have access to the prevention of mother-to-child transmission. Ten percent. And we’re over twenty years into the pandemic. It just demonstrates to you that when you’re dealing with women’s needs the world moves very slowly."

Inexpensive and effective medicines are available to prevent HIV from being passed from mother to newborn, one being Nevirapine. That drug, by itself, has been shown to reduce transmission of HIV by 50 percent. But in rich nations, it’s used in combination with other drugs to reduce the rate by more than 90 percent. Few of the newer drugs are available yet in Africa.

Stephen Lewis has been the UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa for four years now and admits the job can be frustrating and discouraging. But at 67, he has no plans to quit.

"What sustains me is I know we can subdue this pandemic. I know we can break the back of this pandemic. And I’m just determined to be around when the breakthrough occurs. And I’ll be darned if futility has any place in that," he says.

He says at times the problems seem so big he feels as if he’s pounding his head on a wall. Fortunately, he says, his head is harder than the wall.