Women are the new face of AIDS, say conference speakers

Published August 14, 2006

A mother and daughter join thousands during a march on the streets of downtown Toronto to demand immediate, universal and equitable access to HIV/AIDS prevention, care, treatment and research for women and girls worldwide.

The 16th International AIDS Conference opened in Toronto this weekend with calls for immediate, universal and equitable access to HIV/AIDS prevention, care, treatment and research for women and girls worldwide.

Speakers at the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies, including Canada’s Governor General Michaelle Jean, American philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates and Frika Chia Iskandair, a young HIV-positive activist from Indonesia, all delivered the same message: the new face of AIDS is a woman’s – mothers, young ladies and teenagers – and they are not getting the help they desperately need.

Mr. Gates, the world’s richest man, underscored the need to empower women in the fight to end AIDS. Abstinence and being faithful are not enough to stem the pandemic, while using condoms is not a decision made by women, he said, to wide applause from tens of thousands of delegates.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The Microsoft co-founder said the world “hasn’t done enough” to fund research into oral prevention drugs and microbicides that could help protect women from HIV. He said that his foundation, which recently donated $500 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, was committed to funding scientific research and trials for these “preventive tools.”

Mrs. Gates, for her part, lashed at political and religious leaders who insist on abstinence to fight AIDS. “Condoms save lives. 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.”

She also lamented the fact that for political, social and financial reasons AIDS preventive programs such as condoms, clean needles, education and HIV testing are only reaching fewer than 1 in 5 people who need them. But stigma also plays a big role, said Mrs. Gates. “The simple fact is that HIV is transmitted through activities that society finds difficult to discuss – activities that are infused with stigma,” she said.
She underscored the need for leaders to view sex workers as “crucial allies in the fight against AIDS,” saying there is a connection between them and wives, who get infected by unfaithful husbands. “If you turn your back on sex workers, you’re turning your back on the mother of four.” Saving lives, she said, “is the highest ethical act.”

Ms. Chia Iskandar, who tested positive for HIV five years ago at the age of 18, said women, youth and children need to be “on the priority list” for AIDS treatment, research and prevention. Nearly a quarter of new HIV cases, averaging at 4 million a year, are women, according to recent UN statistics.

“I am the new face of AIDS, a young Asian woman … I was born when AIDS was discovered,” she said. “It’s people like me you need to reach.” She urged people not to lose hope in battling the disease, saying that, “while hope isn’t tangible, it is hope that holds us up for the future.”

Governor General Jean called for a “planet-wide approach” to fighting what she called “one of the most insidious epidemics of our time.” She said that affluent countries, including Canada, have “the moral responsibility” to help combat AIDS. “AIDS must be a global, non-partisan agenda,” she said.

AIDS “knows no boundary,” she added, while emphasizing the need to combat stigma surrounding the disease. She recalled how she could barely contain her anger when she heard people describe AIDS as a “punishment” and the “result of deviant behaviour.”

Conference co-chair Dr. Mark Wainberg, meanwhile, lambasted Prime Minister Stephen Harper for declining to address the conference, which has drawn more than 24,000 delegates, scientists, researchers and media from more than 170 countries.

“I am dismayed that the prime minister of Canada isn’t here this evening,” said Dr. Wainberg, as people booed to express the same sentiment. “Mr. Harper, the role of prime minister includes the responsibility to show leadership in the world stage. Your absence sends a message that you do not regard HIV/AIDS as a critical priority.”

Toronto mayor David Miller urged other city governments to be “at the frontline” of HIV/AIDS advocacy saying they have a “unique perspective” into what works in communities.

Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, said that while it has been 25 years since the discovery of AIDS, “tragically the end of AIDS is nowhere in sight.” He stressed that while it is necessary to “normalize” AIDS as a disease, there is still a need to “maintain the exceptionality of AIDS in political agendas” to ensure that “no critical program gets unfunded.”

More than 20 million people have died of AIDS since it was first identified in 1981. The number of people living with HIV continues to grow – from 35 million in 2001 to 38 million in 2003, to 39.4 million in 2004, according to UNAIDS statistics. About 25 million people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa; 10 million of them are young people aged 15 to 24. Between 80 and 85 per cent of HIV/AIDS cases are the result of unprotected sexual intercourse.

Meanwhile, thousands marched on the streets of downtown Toronto on Aug. 14 to highlight the plight of women and girls in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The rally included Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, who noted that the gathering was the first of its kind associated with the conference. “We may be at a turning point in the struggle for the rights of women,” he said. Gender inequality is evident even in access to AIDS treatment, he said, citing how there are not enough hospital beds for women in AIDS wards in Africa.

The rally, held at Metro Hall Square, ended with a march to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the site of the conference.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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