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Women Speak Out As Delegates Battle Over Words At UN AIDS Conference

A U.N. meeting on AIDS concludes Friday with adoption of a declaration setting out a blueprint for global action to battle the pandemic. U.S. First Lady Laura Bush will address the conference.

Mrs. Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will open Friday's final session of the three-day high-level meeting on AIDS. More than a dozen heads of state and 100 ministers are in New York for the gathering.

Thursday, day two of the affair, saw intense negotiations among government delegations and more than one-thousand activist groups on a blueprint for global action on HIV/AIDS. The document, to be adopted as a declaration at the closing session, calls for spending as much as $23 billion on AIDS prevention and treatment programs over the next five years.

U.N. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson is presiding over the negotiating process as it winds down. He says activist groups are pushing for a commitment by governments to do much more for victims of the epidemic. "We heard clearly that people living with HIV/AIDS and vulnerable groups, must be recognized as partners, and as a central component of a more urgent and more comprehensive response to the pandemic. They must hold their governments to account for their performance against their time-bound commitments," he said.

Secretary-General Annan met Thursday with several HIV-positive activists attending the conference. He said they had urged him to insist on a strongly-worded final declaration. "One of them pleaded, please don't kill us with diplomacy. Come up with real proposals that will help us on the ground," he said.

Details of the declaration were still being negotiated late Thursday, with several delicate issues still in the balance.

Much of the discussion at the conference has focused on women, at a time when female HIV infections are rising sharply in many parts of the world. U.N. experts say three out of four young people living with HIV in sub-Sarahan Africa are female.

Ludfine Anyango, a young HIV-positive Kenyan woman, told the conference the spread of AIDS in many countries is closely linked to a culture of violence against women. "Where violence thrives, whether it is physical, whether it is psychological, or whether it is sexual, there HIV/AIDS also thrives, because violence against women diminishes your self-esteem, diminishes your self-confidence, and you cannot negotiate for safer sex. You will not be able to disclose your status if you fear being beaten up when you are back at home Therefore, we must address the issue of violence against women. I think that is a fundamental issue," she said.

Another delegate to the conference, former Irish President Mary Robinson expressed impatience at the slow pace of progress in achieving equality for education for women. Robinson, now director of the Ethical globalization Initiative, says women must have equal access, not just to education, but to secondary education. "It is education at secondary schools that helps young girls to have the power to say 'no'. To have the capacity to stand up for themselves and assert. Because it's all about who has the power. And we need the voices of women who know what the situation is, know the many barriers and the discrimination," she said.

Activists have sharply criticized U.S. policies on HIV/AIDS during the three-day gathering, and urged the Bush administration to increase spending on programs to combat the pandemic in the developing world.

U.S. officials note that Washington is easily the biggest donor to the UNAIDS program. Washington has already committed to a five-year, $15 billion plan, the largest international health initiative ever undertaken to battle a single disease.