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Africa: World's MPs told to put women and children first


[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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.

Gender-based violence

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," Salah said.

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 crisis.

"We should deal with the issues of gender inequality and child rights first if any meaningful developments are to be realised," he said.

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 demobilised."

Leaders' role

"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.


Copyright © 2006 -Integrated Regional Information Network, Publisher. All rights reserved to Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) . Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the Integrated Regional Information Network.

Information in this article was accurate in May 12, 2006. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.