Action against gender inequality needed to defeat AIDS

ZIMBABWE: Action against gender inequality needed to defeat AIDS

HARARE, 6 Aug 2004 (PLUSNEWS) - Urgent action against gender inequality is required to tackle the high rate of HIV-infection among women and girls in Zimbabwe, a report prepared by a regional task force has warned.

Nearly 80 percent of all HIV infections in the 15 to 24 age group were among young women, said the Zimbabwe country report of the UN Secretary-General's Task Force on Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. But too much attention was being paid to helping women cope with caring for the sick and surviving relatives, rather than to strategies to prevent them from becoming HIV-positive.

"The call to urgent action is clear," said Festo Kavishe, Acting UN Resident Coordinator at the launch on Thursday of the report 'Facing the Future Together'. "If we fail to transform the status of women, the tragedy of HIV/AIDS will deepen, and the ability of women to cope - already critically stressed - may totally disintegrate."

He added, "Many of our messages have failed to take into account the specific needs of women and girls, and the often difficult reality of their daily lives."

The report noted the existence of a strong policy framework on HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe, but highlighted that there was limited gender expertise at national, provincial and district levels, "limiting the development of well-targeted gender-sensitive programmes".

Prevention measures emphasising abstinence, fidelity and condom use were insufficient for girls: they were more likely to start having sex earlier than boys, and both women and girls were often unable to negotiate safer sex with older partners, particularly where transactional sex was involved.

The task force said keeping girls in school, where they were less sexually active, was a crucial way of protecting them from HIV/AIDS, and the more educated they were, the more aware they were of the virus and prevention methods. But the cost of education and the expectation of household duties from girls often conspired to keep them out of school.

Violence against women and girls was also a factor driving the high infection rates. The report called for strengthening legal, medical and counseling services for survivors of violence, better enforcement of the Sexual Offences Act, and enactment of the Domestic Violence Bill, which would make domestic violence a punishable crime.

It also called for increased awareness training in property rights for women and girls: discriminatory cultural and legal practices often resulted in women and orphaned girls being left destitute after the death of a husband or parents, while ignorance of their rights further marginalised and impoverished women, leading to an increased risk of HIV infection.

The burden of caregiving in their communities had resulted in "burnout" for many women, reducing their ability to engage in income generating activities. The weight of this responsibility should be eased through strengthening the public health system, investment in home-based care and orphan support, and increased participation of men in these activities.

Since most Zimbabwean women were economically dependent on men, and not always able to access social services, the national antiretroviral treatment programme should ensure gender equality.

The aim of the Task Force was to galvanise action to counter the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls, and make it a central priority of the United Nations in collaboration with governments and civil society. It focused on the nine countries in Southern Africa most affected by HIV/AIDS: Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

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