Linking HIV and women's human rights | Petra Lanz & Susana Fried

22 Aug 2013

woman teaching about HIV Gender inequality exacerbates HIV risk, and new goals for development should work to protect women from violence while enabling them to access treatment. (Photo: Marguerite Nowak/UNDP Iran)

Women living with and affected by HIV often suffer stigma and discrimination, along with egregious violations such as coercive sterilization. Gender-based violence (GBV), meanwhile, puts women at increased risk of contracting HIV: One South African study found that one in every eight new infections in young women is the result of GBV.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is unequivocal on women’s rights to equality and health. It sets out specific measures States should adopt to advance gender equality in all areas, including the elimination of sex- and gender-based discrimination in the context of HIV.

Examples of how gender inequality exacerbates HIV risk vary widely and span the globe. They include inadequate or non-existent legal and property rights; child marriages; higher dropout rates; denial of life-saving health care; and intimate partner violence.

Globally, HIV is still the leading cause of death of women of reproductive age  and contributes to at least 20 percent of maternal deaths. Every minute, another young woman is infected with HIV, according to UNAIDS (PDF).

We have CEDAW, with its accountability mechanism, and abundant data and research on our side. How then, do we move from laws to action? As Jacinta Nyachae, Executive Director of Kenya’s AIDS Law Project says, we have enabling laws, but women often cannot make use of them.

As part of an unprecedented global, public consultation on what citizens around the world believe should succeed the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after their target date in 2015, one HIV-positive woman in Papua New Guinea shared a story highlighting the complexities surrounding HIV, violence, rule of law, gender and policy.

The woman, a young mother, has a long walk to an urban medical centre to receive antiretroviral HIV treatment. But rising crime and insecurity, and the women’s fear of being raped or attacked, often kept her at home and away from her treatment, threatening her own health and the well-being of her children.

Women worldwide make similar calculations every day, and face choices no one should have to make. New global development goals should aim for a world in which they never do — protecting women and girls from violence and HIV is a good place to start.

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