An international conference focusing on the impact of HIV/AIDS on women opened Tuesday in the Botswanan capital, Gabarone. Delegates are calling for policy changes to look at the disease as a social issue, not just a medical one.
Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says it’s time HIV/AIDS was considered a gender and human rights issue.
She says, "I think that’s a dimension we don’t hear enough about, given that 58 percent of those infected here in sub-Saharan Africa are women. And the experts tell me that in 20 years time overall it could be something like 70 percent. So, it is a disease that has a great bearing on women, whether they’re victims or caregivers, whether they’re policymakers trying to cope with this as we’re trying to do here in this conference."
The former president of Ireland says it is clear what legislative action needs to be taken.
He says, "We need to change inheritance law. We need to have micro-credit facilities to empower women. We need to ensure there’s no discrimination against the girl child, against minorities. We need to tackle the difficult climate at the moment of reproductive health. It’s very unfortunate that we have kind of a fundamentalist attitude just when women desperately need access to family planning services to real choices that they make themselves and are empowered to make. So we have a lot to do."
She says there are many parliamentarians in Botswana and elsewhere who are enthusiastic about gender and human rights issues and about programs to fight HIV/AIDS. But she says they need encouragement – not lectures.
"We don’t need to come in as Europeans or Americans, whatever, from the outside with all the wisdom. We don’t have it. We need to come in in support," she says.
At the Botswana AIDS conference, Mary Robinson introduced one of the keynote speakers, former South African Member of Parliament Pregs Govender. Ms. Govender has been a critic of her government’s past policies on fighting AIDS. She says the disease has had a terrible impact on poor women in her country.
She says, "What HIV/AIDS has done is deepen the problems that women have experienced because of poverty and because of gender-based violence. So you find that those women, particularly who are extremely poor, have no access to good nutrition, have no access to medication of any kind and are most vulnerable to violence because there is inadequate street lighting, transport, etc."
She says HIV/AIDS highlights the need to give women access to land, housing and employment. This, she says, would allow women to become independent and make choices.
Ms. Govender says, "Women do not have to stay in those situations of violence, for example, because they have no choice."
Despite her past criticism, Pregs Govender is optimistic about her country’s future. She says South Africa now faces many of the same problems that Brazil encountered in the mid 1990’s. However, she says with a concerted national effort and a strong treatment and prevention program, Brazil was able to reduce the mortality rate from HIV/AIDS by over 50 percent. She says Brazil was also able to reduce hospitalization from AIDS-related illnesses by 85 percent.
Part of Brazil’s success has been the production of generic anti-retroviral drugs. Ms. Govender says South Africa will soon unveil its own treatment program.
She says, "We’ve now got in place the cabinet commitments that are absolutely necessary to ensuring that we are focused as a country on what is needed to be done. That we can tackle this pandemic at all levels."
The conference in Gabarone bears the long title: Reducing Women’s Vulnerability and Combating Stigmas in the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. It is being held in conjunction with an international human rights conference by AWEPA, the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa.