- Violence and discrimination against women and girls is fuelling Africa's AIDS crisis, another report released today demonstrates. Abuses that African women and girls suffer at each stage of their lives significantly increase their risk for HIV infection.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch today, on World AIDS Day, released the 40-page report, 'Policy Paralysis: A Call for Action on HIV/AIDS-Related Human Rights Abuses Against Women and Girls in Africa'. The group concludes that "African governments must make gender equality a central part of national AIDS programs if they are to succeed in fighting the epidemic."
The report documents human rights abuses that women and girls suffer at each stage of their lives and that increase their risk for HIV infection. At young age, girls already face sexual abuse and violence, in and out of school.
Later, women in long-term relationships risk violence if they insist on condom use or refuse sex. Widows are discriminated against in property and inheritance rights. And women and girls are raped in war and civil conflict, where rape is used strategically as a weapon.
- Women and girls in Africa are dying by the millions, partly because their second-class status makes them vulnerable to violence and unsafe sex, commented Joanne Csete of Human Rights Watch. "In the fight against AIDS, protecting women and girls from sexual abuse and ensuring their equal rights under the law are as crucial as keeping the blood supply clean."
The report sharply criticises African governments for "allowing these abuses to continue and ignoring the critical link between them and HIV/AIDS among women and girls." These abuses and their links to the spread of HIV are mostly well known and mapped.
Legal and judicial remedies for violations of the rights of women and girls were often "inadequate or nonexistent," the report says. "Even where such laws exist, they are poorly enforced. Women and girls who are courageous enough to file complaints are often laughed at or mistreated by officials."
- There is near paralysis in African governments' response to HIV/AIDS among women and girls, commented Ms Csete. "State failure to protect women and girls from such abuses is fuelling the AIDS epidemic in Africa. And studies suggest that this is a global phenomenon," she adds.
Women and girls represent 58 percent of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, women and girls are seven times more likely to be HIV positive than their male counterparts due to the many and systematic abuses of girls and women.
While Africa is the only region where females outnumber males among the newly HIV-infected, studies show that women and girls in other parts of the developing world—including the Caribbean, Central America, South Asia and Southeast Asia—have greater susceptibility to the virus as it moves from "high risk" groups to the general population.
The report made several detailed recommendations to African governments, the UN and donors - including the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria - to take immediate action to address gender-based violence and discrimination. The US group also called on all governments to make gender equality a central element of national AIDS programs.
African governments were advised to take urgent action to enact and enforce legislation to protect women and girls from sexual and domestic violence and marital rape, but also legislation to ensure gender equality in property ownership, inheritance and divorce. They should also provide training and resources to police and judicial officers to facilitate reporting and prosecution of gender-based violence.
- Even Uganda's widely heralded success in fighting AIDS will unravel as long as women face violence when they refuse sex or demand safer sex, said Ms Csete. "These abuses don't go away by themselves; well funded programs are needed. The Global Fund and other donors should promote protection of women’s and girls’ rights as a central part of AIDS programs."
The report covers abuses in countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa: West Africa (Sierra Leone and Togo), Central Africa (Congo Kinshasa), East Africa (Kenya and Uganda) and Southern Africa (South Africa and Zambia).
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