by Thalif Deen
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS --
newest data coming out of AIDS-stricken countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean indicates that the proportion of women living with HIV/AIDS has risen steadily in recent years.
"Today, young women in the developing world are twice as likely to be infected as men," warns Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS.
And as the United Nations gets ready for its June 25-27 Special Session on AIDS, Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also drawing attention to "a terrifying pattern that is emerging" -- about 55 percent of all HIV-positive adults in sub-Saharan Africa are women compared with a decade ago, when men outnumbered women.
Teenage girls are being infected at a rate five or six times greater than their male counterparts. "And in the world as a whole, at least half of all new infections are among women," he added.
In the face of the new evidence some gender rights activists are alarmed that a Declaration of Commitment on HIV-AIDS to be adopted by the 189 member states at the Special Session has largely marginalized the gender implications of AIDS.
The Declaration, which is to be finalized during the three-day Special Session, "is very short and has no teeth" in its current draft, said Aisha Satterwhite, program director of the New York and Washington-based Africa Action.
She admitted that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been unable to influence the negotiations because they were shut out of the process.
"All sessions were closed and even NGOs accredited with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) were kicked out of the sessions and doors were locked," she added.
"This is a very bad precedent for the future and makes NGOs worry as to what will happen at the General Assembly itself," says Carol Lubin of the International Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers.
Ambassador Penny Wensley of Australia, one of the co-facilitators of the inter-governmental process responsible for the Declaration, said that some governments were concerned about open discussion of some "sensitive issues" that emerged during negotiation of the draft text.
They included a pursuit of a wide range of "prevention interventions," including encouraging responsible sexual behaviors and expanding access to essential items such as condoms and disposable syringes and increased access to voluntary and confidential counselling and testing.
to inclusion of a strong gender perspective in the Declaration came mainly from the United States and most Islamic nations who hold the view that such a perspective will lead to promiscuity.
"The U.S. delegation was influenced by the religious right," a spokeswoman for an NGO from a developing country complained, hinting at the political sea change in Washington since the White House was taken over by George W. Bush.
She said there was an attempt to get rid of all language relating to family planning, condom use, gender inequality, access to information about abortions, sex education, reproductive rights, "and anything that didn't promote abstinence."
"There is a fear of addressing real gender issues and there is a fear of providing information about sex and sexuality to young people," Satterwhite said.
"What is emerging is an attempt to hold fast to patriarchal norms and the reinforcement of the belief that if you provide young people with condoms and information, you will be encouraging them to have sex," she added.
"By turning a blind eye to those most at risk by pushing for their erasure or their decreased visibility in the Declaration, many member states are doing little to stem the rising tide of infection, and to support their calls of solidarity," she argued.
There were several proposals that never made it to the draft Declaration because of strong opposition from member states.
These include a call to reduce the vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS "through the elimination of all forms of discrimination, as well as all forms of violence against women and girls, including harmful traditional and customary practices, including sexual abuse and rape, battering and trafficking in women and girls."
Member states also cold-shouldered a proposal to recognize "that the unequal power relationships between women and men, in which women often do not have the power to insist on safe and responsible sex practices, increases their susceptibility to HIV/AIDS."
There are others who wanted a weaker commitment to the promotion and protection of basic human rights by eliminating or using vague language to explain those most at risk, including sex workers, drug users, refugees, migrant workers, men who have sex with men, people in prison and youth.
Richard Elliot of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network said that if countries are unwilling to even name those groups most affected and at risk -- such as men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, transgendered individuals and sex workers -- then the declared commitment rings hollow.
Stephanie Urdang, Advisor, Gender and HIV/AIDS at the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), said the Declaration that will be adopted at the Special Session was "an important beginning."
She said that even though the gender perspective was not being integrated "as we would have liked it to be," governments are making public commitments to fight the devastating disease and there growing awareness of the gender perspective in AIDS.
Urdang said AIDS was a gender issue because it is unacceptable for women to say "No!" to unwanted and unprotected sex. Cultural beliefs, practices and values run so deep that women are silenced from making this simple life-saving demand.
Noeleen Heyzer, executive director for UNIFEM, says that gender inequality is at the heart of the AIDS epidemic, "which today is our biggest threat to development."
"We must address power imbalances in every single policy, strategy, and program related to prevention, treatment and care, if we seriously want to tackle this global challenge."
"It is not simply a matter of justice and fairness. Gender inequality is just fatal," said Heyzer.
*This is one in a series of IPS features previewing the United Nations Special Session on AIDS, to be held in New York June 25-27. It is the first-ever Special Session devoted to a single disease.
June 24, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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