More women than ever before - some 17.7 million - are living with HIV, nearly half of all those infected with the virus. Activists say violence, particularly intimate partner violence, is a leading factor in this increasing "feminization" of the global AIDS pandemic. A newly formed international coalition of women's health groups is calling on agencies that fund HIV and AIDS programs to address the problem of gender-based violence in their planning.
The new coalition is called "Women Won't Wait," and its message is that women can't wait, as their health, lives and rights are threatened by HIV/AIDS and violence. Coalition members want government and private AIDS programs to make ending violence against women and girls an integral part of the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Neelanjana Mukhia, the campaign coordinator of the , one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic says women and girls who are raped or are the victims of domestic violence are more vulnerable to HIV infection. Women and girls who are already infected "are facing violence from their families, from their communities and from the states they live in as a result of their positive status."
That's why the coalition is asking major national and international health agencies to develop policies to address gender-based violence in their HIV prevention and treatment programs.
The coalition issued a report last week, examining what had been done so far. Susana Fried, author of the report, says she found progress, and problems.
"While there has been an enormous amount of progress at the policy level, it really does evaporate as you go from policy to programming to what's happening at the most local levels," Fried says.
For her report, she looked at efforts by the UN AIDS agency, and the programs of four major funding groups: the World Bank; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; the United Kingdom's Department for International Development; and the President's Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.
The report says that the American fund's philosophy, which emphasizes abstinence and fidelity, reflects the demands of conservative political forces within the United States. "This abstinence until marriage earmark in the U.S Global AIDS policy actually has turned into 'abstinence only until marriage' program in many countries," says Jodi Jacobson, of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, one of the coalition supporters. It isn't working, because, she says, "most women are getting infected within marriages."
The coalition report praises PEPFAR for its explicit commitment to address gender-based violence, but says its mission does not include promoting the basic human rights of women and girls.
The "Women Won't Wait" campaign calls for zero tolerance for violence against women and seeks to dispel myths and misconceptions about HIV. Coalition members plan to continue to monitor donor and agency policies and practices, to gauge their progress.