[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the
NAIROBI, 12 May 2006 (IRIN/PLUSNEWS) - Presenters at the 114th
Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) conference, which ended in
Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday, used the meeting as a platform to
advocate on behalf of Africa's women and children.
Putting children at the centre of the HIV/AIDS agenda was one of
the main issues for delegates at the interparliamentary assembly
during the six-day conference. The HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to
devastate many countries in sub-Sahara Africa, where at least 85
percent of the world's children with HIV/AIDS live. The disease
breaks up families, prevents children attending school,
perpetuates poverty and has left behind a generation of orphans.
A child born free of HIV/AIDS infection to an infected mother has
close to a 100-percent chance of becoming an orphan, and families
that lose a parent have a much bigger chance of falling into
poverty, according to a 2005 report made available at the
meeting. Orphaned children are also more likely to drop out of
school, and the lack of education puts these children -
especially girls - at greater risk of contracting HIV.
"There is need to remedy the fate of children orphaned by
HIV/AIDS, who were traditionally taken in by the extended family
- but this is breaking down, due to the fragility of families,"
said Rima Salah, the deputy executive director of the United
Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), who spoke at the conference.
In most African countries, HIV/AIDS often has a direct relation
to gender-based violence, and there are few systems in place to
protect vulnerable women and girls.
"No country can claim to have no violence against women and
children," Salah said. "How can we permit a child to be raped? In
the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I saw this young girl
who had been raped repeatedly, then had her eyes gouged out so
that she could not identify the perpetrators of the heinous act."
Salah also attributed the increasing incidence of violence to
ignorance, notably in situations where HIV-positive men raped
infants and young girls believing it would cure them. She decried
the practices of female genital mutilation, honour killings and
the trafficking in women and girls as well.
"We have to use education as a vehicle to empower the society,"
With education ministries in Burundi and Kenya, among other
African countries, implementing free primary education, more
children are enrolling in school.
"To complement what the children are learning in school, we are
incorporating life skills in the school curricula," she said.
"The girls are learning to be more assertive, to say no."
The UN secretary-general's special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa,
Stephen Lewis, pointed out the need for legislation to protect
women and children, the most neglected groups in the HIV/AIDS
"We should deal with the issues of gender inequality and child
rights first if any meaningful developments are to be realised,"
Towards that end, Kenya's parliament is debating a proposed
Sexual Offences Bill, which would offer greater protection to
women and girls. The majority of the male members of parliament
oppose it, citing contentious sections on marital rape, sexual
harassment and what constitutes rape. One Kenyan male MP is on
record as saying African society does not recognise marital rape.
He termed it a "foreign concept".
However, Kenya's assistant education minister, Beth Mugo, said at
the conference that the proposed bill should retain the clause on
marital rape, as many married women were suffering in silence.
"They should be protected," Mugo said. "It is unfortunate that we
are not getting the support we require from the male members of
the Kenyan parliament."
Women and children in Africa also struggle for access to proper
healthcare. There is a lack of capacity in vital public sectors,
such as qualified personnel in medical and educational
institutions. Indeed, doctors, nurses and teachers are dying of
AIDS-related illnesses or abandoning their professions because of
poor pay, poor infrastructure, insufficient equipment, inadequate
facilities, poor access and lack of clean water.
Such testimony painted a dismal picture for women and children on
the continent. Still, Salah said there was hope for some of
Africa's most vulnerable children, citing rehabilitation
programmes underway for demobilised former child soldiers in
Burundi and the DRC.
"They are taken to rehabilitation centres for three months, where
they have access to healthcare, support and counselling," she
said. "In the DRC, about one million children have been
"There is need to draw attention to the plight of women and
children," Salah added. "We need to elevate the status of women
in our societies by responding appropriately to their needs. The
leaders should also play their role."
She recommended that legislators consider the 4Ps approach:
Prevention of mother-to-child HIV/AIDS transmission; paediatric
care/support and treatment; prevention among adolescents and
young people; and protection of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS and
the institution of legislation to control violence against women.
The culture of silence or denial with regard to HIV/AIDS was
broken in 2001 in some African countries, with leaders working to
sensitise the public. In Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki featured in
HIV/AIDS awareness advertisements while in Lesotho, national and
religious leaders went for HIV/AIDS testing at Voluntary,
Counselling and Testing centres.
The IPU president, Pier Ferdinando Casini, said the challenge of
HIV/AIDS was a test of leadership for all parliamentarians.