Among the many advocacy groups taking part in the 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico City is the Canada-based Blueprint for Action on Women and Girls and HIV.  Their mission is to improve the status of the 15.4 million women living with HIV/AIDS, or about half the global number affected by the disease.  The group has developed a system of report cards to evaluate the AIDS prevention efforts of individual countries around the world.  Among the report cards released in Mexico City this week is one rating the southern African nation of Zimbabwe.  VOA's Rosanne Skirble has the details.

Lois Chiangandu says she began putting together the report card for Zimbabwe during the country's contentious presidential election, when non-governmental organizations like the one she runs, called Southern Africa AIDS, were prohibited by the Zimbabwe government from talking to large groups of women.  

"Our work was primarily suspended.  But because we were very keen to still collect this data we were able to use many different ways of doing that," Chiangandu says.  In addition to phoning women, her group brought women in one at a time to talk with them, "because you couldn't group more than three or four women together."

The women told her that Zimbabwe's worsening economic crisis, in which prices for everything have skyrocketed, has greatly complicated the AIDS prevention picture.  Women living with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, she says, can hardly afford basics like food, clean water or sanitation, let alone drugs to care for their condition, which many, consider a luxury.

"The cost of inflation is unbelievable," she says.  "Every day women wake up, they have to make choices. Difficult choices. The price of food goes up three or four times in one day.  So if you buy bread this morning at $10, for instance, there's no guarantee that if you come an hour later it will still be $10."  That, she says, is true of anything in the marketplace, not just food.

According to the Zimbabwe report card, HIV presents a vicious cycle where poverty predisposes women and girls to infection.  Fifty-five percent of those living with HIV are women, while girls between 15 and 19 years of age are most vulnerable.

Chiangandu says that while Zimbabwe has laws and policies to ensure that the rights of women and girls are protected, those rights are undermined by deep-rooted cultural beliefs and practices.  She says women have also been caught in the political crossfire as displaced victims of violence.  In her work, it is often difficult to separate politics from health care issues.

"It is how it is interpreted that becomes a challenge. I am not interested in politics," she says. "I am talking about human rights in the context of HIV/AIDS and people living with HIV/AIDS as human beings, and what they need which they are not having and that is the context in which I speak."

Lois Chiangandu wants her government to do a better job. She also wants the international community to contribute more resources for women and girls with HIV/AIDS.  

"Our hope is that this report card can be the voice of those people in Zimbabwe who were not able to come to this platform [meeting], and it can be the voice that can keep on talking even beyond us, even when I have gone back home," she says.

Chiangandu says it is the people in the communities, living with HIV/AIDS that keep her going. "You just think, if you stopped doing it, then what?"

When she returns home, Chiangandu says she will continue to update the reports card to reflect the current state of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs for Zimbabwe's women and girls.