AIDS activists urge protection of women

Published October 1, 2006

An African delegate eyes an outfit made of condoms by Brazilian artist Adriana Bertini, whose creations were on display at the 16th International AIDS Conference.

The 16th International AIDS Conference ended Aug. 18 in Toronto with calls for more funding for global AIDS intervention programs, as well as for immediate, universal and equitable access to HIV/AIDS prevention, care, treatment and research for women and girls worldwide.

Dr. Mark Wainberg, local host board chair and director of McGill University’s AIDS Centre, urged conference delegates to redouble their efforts in turning the tide against AIDS. “Indeed, we will have failed unless we dramatically and rapidly expand by millions the numbers of people around the world with access to antiretroviral drugs and simultaneously scale up prevention,” he said. “Progress cannot be achieved if more people become infected by HIV each year than the numbers that are able to access treatment.” Only 1.6 million of 6.8 million people or 24 per cent of people living with HIV in developing countries have access to antiretroviral drugs that can prolong the life of those infected with the virus.

In 2005, about 39 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS. Last year, there were 4.1 million new HIV infections; 2.8 million died of AIDS-related illnesses. More than 20 million people have died of AIDS since it was first identified in 1981.

The conference was attended by about 27,000 delegates from around the world. Also present were representatives of churches and church-based organizations, including the Anglican Church of Canada and its partners.

An issue that gained prominence in the weeklong conference was the need to empower women in the fight to end AIDS.

In his closing address, United Nations special envoy on HIV/AIDS for Africa Stephen Lewis blasted governments and institutions like the UN for the continued “diminution of the rights of women,” and said that as long as men “control the bastions of power” AIDS will not be broken. “We will never subdue AIDS until the rights of women become part of the struggle,” said Mr. Lewis.

Mr. Lewis stated unequivocally that abstinence-only education programs to combat HIV/AIDS “do not work.” He also criticized the U.S. government, which last year imposed a condition that countries receiving federal AIDS grants must sign a statement condemning prostitution. Last year, Brazil refused such a grant amounting to $48 million, stating that HIV/AIDS education must include sex workers.

Telling a government how to allocate aid is a “throwback to yesteryear” said Mr. Lewis, adding, “That approach has a name: neo-colonialism.”

Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, also took up the fight for women, saying abstinence and being faithful are not enough to stem the pandemic. Using condoms is not a decision made by women, he said at the opening ceremonies. “No matter where she lives. No matter who she is or what she does, a woman should never need her partner’s permission to save her own life,” said the Microsoft co-founder. “Being faithful will not protect a woman whose partner is not faithful. We need to put the power to stop HIV into the hands of women.”

His wife, Melinda, lashed out at political and religious leaders who insist on abstinence to fight AIDS. “If you oppose the distribution of condoms, something’s more important to you than saving lives,” she said. “Withholding condoms does not mean fewer people have sex. It means fewer people have safe sex and more people die.”

Meanwhile, in a session at the conference, faith representatives debated whether theology is helping or hurting efforts to help people living with the disease and to prevent its spread.

While many faith groups are at the forefront of caring for people with HIV/AIDS, religion is still part of the problem, said several members of a six-person panel. AIDS, in its early years, spread quickly among gay men and intravenous drug users. However, it can also be transmitted through heterosexual sex, blood transfusions, childbirth and breastfeeding. Condom use prevents the transmission of the virus during sex, but some religions ban them.

“There has been an escalation of Muslim concern about HIV/AIDS,” said Prof. Farid Esack of Harvard University and founder of Positive Muslims, a South African awareness and support group for Muslims living with HIV/AIDS. “The tenor of debate is higher than in the past, which was marked by scorn and condemnation. There is now a cautious welcome toward condoms, in addition to abstinence and no sex outside marriage. But most Muslims are still at the stage where they feel compassion and pity but ‘it’s not really about us.’ It is very much connected to sin and the price of sin.”

The burden for those with the disease is compounded by messages from faith communities that they are sinful as well as ill.

“We have been complicit (in the spread of AIDS) by our shaming words and deeds, by our failure to listen to and walk with and follow the leadership of people living with HIV/AIDS. We have to claim the capacity we have to be the centres of advocacy and change,” said Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


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