Elayne Clift


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The Female Face of AIDS

Columnist Elayne Clift covered the AIDS 2006 Conference for Women’s Feature Service, a syndicate based in New Delhi, India.

They were young and old, from the North and the South, infected and uninfected.  They were scientists, commercial sex workers, migrant laborers, policymakers and program directors, advocates and educators.  They came from the world’s religious and indigenous communities, from royal families, from foundations, from neighborhoods and nations.  And together, at the 16th International AIDS Conference held in Toronto in August 2006, they presented to the world the long absent face of women.

 “Women are grotesquely, disproportionately affected” by the epidemic, said Stephen Lewis, noted Canadian diplomat and AIDS activist who, along with other leaders, has called for the establishment of an international agency for women and AIDS.

 “We must break down the despicable stigma for women with AIDS,” added Sarah Russell of the Global Coalition of Women and AIDS. 

 “We need to take the lead as women to take charge of our own situation,” admonished Musa Nyoko, a South African jazz artist and HIV-positive activist. 

“We need policymakers to start fearing HIV/AIDS more than they fear giving rights to women,” added Nafis Sadik, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia. 

“HIV positive women are still being blamed for transmission of the virus; still face violence, loss of families, homes, and livelihoods upon disclosure; and still lack control over their sexual and reproductive lives,” decried Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and of the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights.

Worldwide 17.3 million women aged 15 years and older live with HIV.  In Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, an increasing proportion of people living with HIV are women.  More than 75 percent of all HIV positive women live in sub-Saharan Africa, where women comprise 59 percent of adults living with HIV. In the U.S., AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 25 to 34.

And that’s why the theme of this year’s AIDS conference, “Time to Deliver,” was so appropriately female-focused.  Why Bill and Melinda Gates called on world leaders to “put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women, whether the woman is a faithful married mother of small children, or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum.”  Why there was a rally for women and girls in which women like Louise Binder, an HIV-positive activist and lawyer in Toronto charged that the U.S. policy advocating abstinence, faithfulness and condom use (ABC)  -- and our government’s requirement that reproductive health organizations receiving U.S. funds decry the work of women in the sex industry  -- is “ill-conceived, counterproductive and dangerous.”  The U.S. policy, she charged,  “is the most blatant example of policymaking by men who know nothing of the context and reality of the lived experience of women and girls.”

Women have been called “an endangered species” because of the burdens imposed on them by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  The conference in Canada that drew 25,000 participants from around the world seemed, finally, to shine a light on that burden.  We can only hope that policymakers, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and others will remember the urgent message of this year’s conference, and that they will act on it accordingly, and in time.