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Women and HIV: Make positive women and young women’s voices count

<p>Feature story</p>

May 31, 2013

“My power is my voice and my move to action is change.” These were the words of 29 year old Nargis Shirazi from Uganda speaking at a panel examining HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights. She captured the essence of strong messages resonating at the 3rd Global Women Deliver Congress on the need for greater attention to the voices and rights of women living with HIV and greater engagement of young women.

Through a number of sessions featuring diverse and distinguished panellists from around the world, discussions at the Congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, highlighted how achieving health and development goals will only be possible through increased focus on upholding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women living with HIV and young women. “Ending HIV is possible if we engage women in all their diversity,” said First Lady of Sierra Leone, Her Excellency, Sia Nyama Koroma during a discussion on how securing health and reproductive rights of women is critical to the attainment of the Global Plan towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children by 2015 and keeping their mothers alive.

“Young women living with and affected by HIV must be actively engaged in the HIV response,” said UNAIDS International Goodwill Ambassador, Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway. “They are best qualified to lead the way and guide health care planners and providers to deliver services that meet their needs.”

Worldwide, nearly 17 million women are living with HIV. Young women aged 15-24 are particularly vulnerable with infection rates twice as high as in young men. Women living with HIV, and young women, face particular challenges in accessing HIV services. Lack of knowledge about HIV, or lack of agency to act on knowledge—due to gender inequities and cultural norms—often prevents young women from receiving the support and services they need. Even when services are accessed, women living with HIV often face severe discrimination with regards to their sexual and reproductive health rights and choices. Across the world, women living with HIV report being advised to abstain from sexual relations and even coerced into considering abortion and sterilization, based on their HIV status.

“So many young women are suffering not knowing what their rights are. The empowerment of young women matters,” said Helena Nangombe, Namibia Women's Health Network and Advisory Group member of the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS.

“All women have the right to choice when it comes to exercising their sexual and reproductive health and rights and protecting themselves from risk of HIV infection,” said UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director, Management and Governance, Jan Beagle. “AIDS is much more than a health issue, it is a development issue, a rights issue, and it is clear that gender equality and human rights are non-negotiable elements to ensure effective HIV and health responses as well as social justice for all.”

Delegates underlined that language and approach is critical when addressing and involving women living with HIV. Alice Wellbourn, Founding Director of the Salamander Trust and long-time advocate for rights of women living with HIV stressed: “Mind your language please! When talking about women’s sexual and reproductive health needs and rights within the context of HIV, we need to get away from using very negative language: stigma, fear, death, etc.” Speaking at a session exploring issues of women’s rights within health and development initiatives, Ms Wellbourn suggested that language emphasizing “compassion, love, support, respect and dignity” should be prioritized. “We need to turn the language towards possibilities, particularly in the healthcare settings,” she added.

Within the context of post-2015 development discussions, greater integration of HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights services was underlined across sessions as a critical stepping stone towards enabling improved services for women and girls.

“HIV needs to be part of a comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda, but it needs to be normalized, personalised beyond figures, and then we need to take the personalization to the political leaders– it needs to really reflect women and girls voices,” said Dame Carol Kidu, Former Member of Parliament, Papua New Guinea and member of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. “To address this, and to have impact on the HIV-related stigma and discrimination often experienced by women and girls, we need work with mothers and sisters. We need community conversations,” she added.

The issues of HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights were discussed in a number of panels including the high-level panel ‘More than Mothers: Upholding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women in the Global Plan’; a session under the ‘Every Woman Every Child’ umbrella on continuous improvement for women and children’s health, co-organized by the H4+ and the Inter-agency Task Team on the Prevention and Treatment of HIV among Pregnant Women, Mothers and Children; and the Plenary Lunch ‘The Challenges and Benefits of Partnership on MDG5’. The 3rd global Women Deliver Congress ran in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 28-30 May 2012.