This was originally published on Skoll World Forum online.
For years, my battle cry has been to bring HIV treatment to children and families in Africa. And as I begin my new tour, you’re only going to hear me get louder on the issue— especially as it relates to women. Every minute, a young woman becomes infected with HIV, and that’s just CRAZY unacceptable!
Next week, for the 25th time, we will observe World AIDS Day. For a quarter of a century we have come together to raise awareness and reflect on the millions who have died, and the millions who continue to live with HIV. This year’s theme is “Getting to Zero.” We want to get to that number so badly, and we fight for that goal day in and day out. But this year, I’d like to see us add what you might call a sub-theme—“Getting to Zero: With Women and Girls.” Women and girls have shouldered the burden of HIV for decades – as sisters, mothers, daughters, caregivers, and above all, as beacons of strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
Last November, Secretary of State Clinton, one of the strongest voices for women and girls ever in the public arena, first called upon our world leaders to make the possibility of an AIDS-free generation a reality. Her declaration that it was possible helped fire up the movement to end HIV, and brought the issue to the forefront of the global health agenda. In the past year, we’ve seen incredible momentum build towards this goal, and we’ve realized the importance of involving women and girls in order to fully realize an AIDS-free generation. Women have overtaken men as the majority of people living with HIV, yet the world’s response to the changing face of HIV has not sufficiently taken into account the specific needs and rights of women.
The disparities are beyond shocking in sub-Saharan Africa, where six in ten people living with HIV are women, and where young women aged 15-24 are eight times more likely than men to be living with HIV. Young women now make up more than 72% of new HIV infections among young people in Africa. 72%!
“Women don’t have an equal voice in the fight for their lives or the lives of their children. And that’s got to change if we’re going to achieve the promise of an AIDS-free generation.”
Those numbers are sobering, but behind the statistics are real stories: a mother who prays that she will have a healthy, HIV-free baby but doesn’t have access to the medicine to make it reality; a woman whose limited decision-making power in her family prevents her from getting the HIV treatment she needs; an adolescent girl whose only hope to stay in school is to put herself at risk with an older man; a woman who fears violence if she asks her husband or partner to use a condom to protect herself from HIV; a child born and orphaned in the same day; and a grandmother, whose own children have died of AIDS, struggling to raise her grandchildren on meager funds from a widow’s pension.
We have to be the heart that beats for these women. Women are the backbone of families, communities and entire societies, and it is only through their improved status and their active participation at all of these levels that lasting change and an end to AIDS will become a reality. Women want to protect themselves from HIV, and protect their babies from becoming infected during pregnancy. However, women don’t have an equal voice in the fight for their lives or the lives of their children. And that’s got to change if we’re going to achieve the promise of an AIDS-free generation. That’s why the single most important strategy in dealing with HIV right now is empowering women and girls– guaranteeing their rights, so they can protect themselves from infection, overcome stigma, and gain access to treatment and care.
When we’re offering our resources abroad and at home, we need to make sure women and girls are given the tools they need to eradicate HIV and stop the cycle of suffering it causes. We can do this by providing them with an education, prevention methods, economic opportunities, and a place at the table. Only when we change the equation for women, can we be on the path to a different result and finally “Getting to Zero.”