Of the estimated 42-million people living with HIV/AIDS, more than half are women ? and most of the infected women are in sub-Saharan Africa. That?s the reason behind an international AIDS conference opening Tuesday, September 9th, in Gabarone, Botswana.

The conference will look at HIV/AIDS not just as a health issue ? but a matter of gender and human rights. One of the participants is Mary Crewe, director of the Center for the Study of AIDS at the University of Pretoria. She says women living with HIV/AIDS face stigma and discrimination.

She says, "They also carry the burden of being accused of being the vectors of this epidemic, of bringing infection into the home, of having behaved in ways which were unseemly. And there is an enormous amount of stigma against women who are infected. They very often are evicted from homes or abandoned by their families. And on top of that they carry an enormous burden of care of their own infection, perhaps, or the infection of their partners, infection of their children."

She says the HIV/AIDS pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the image of the African family.

She says, "People are starting to recognize, I think, that a lot of the kind of mythology about African families really isn?t there. The people used to talk in a more romantic way about extended family networks and the strength of the family ? and how these extended family networks would be holding the society together in the face of AIDS. And what we?re seeing, in fact, is that this is really not happening at all."

Mary Crewe says the extended family should now be called the ?over extended? family ? as older women are forced into caregiver roles.

She says, "Older women are trying to hold together grandchildren, nieces and nephews, great grandchildren, great nieces and nephews from a whole range of families. And I think a whole lot of interesting situations are developing where children are not getting enough socialization or they?re not getting enough food, or they?re not getting enough care. And so, the family is ceasing to be this kind of caring, nurturing environment for children or for older women."

The director of the Center for the Study of AIDS at the University of Pretoria says Africa needs better leadership to fight the disease. She says, ?The primary responsibility for this epidemic rests with government.? She says, ?It?s solely a government responsibility to ensure that people have access to health?and that stigma and prejudice are challenged.?

She says, "I think there?s a tendency on the part of governments to say this is a social problem. It?s got to be dealt with by NGO?s (non-governmental organizations) or particularly by donor agencies. So, there?s lots of passing of responsibility. But I think political leadership is crucial."

She says if a government is not providing the leadership needed to combat AIDS, it should be voted out of office.

The Gabarone conference is entitled: ?Reducing Women?s Vulnerability and Combating Stigma in the HIV/AIDS Pandemic in Africa.? Other participants include Mary Robinson, who served as president of Ireland and as the U-N High Commissioner for Human Rights ? and Pregs Govender of South Africa. As a member of parliament in 1992, she wrote a report on addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS on women. The conference is being hosted by the parliament of Botswana with the support of various international organizations.