World AIDS Day 2008 - Curbing the impact of HIV and AIDS on women and girls

By Victoria Harnett

Currently 16.6 million women and girls are infected with HIV and AIDS worldwide. That is nearly half of the population of Canada. Even more disturbing - women and girls are more likely to become infected today than ever before. Women and girls account for the majority of all new infections.

Women around the globe are significantly disadvantaged where HIV and AIDS are concerned. Gender inequality places women at higher risk of infection, as women`s rights are consistently violated.

Violence and the threat of violence have major impacts on women`s susceptibility and vulnerability to HIV infection. Recent research shows that in some countries more than half of all women have experienced sexual violence by an intimate partner, and that the risk of becoming infected with HIV is up to three times higher for those who have experienced sexual violence.

Furthermore, the threat of violence makes it extremely difficult for women and girls to refuse sex or to negotiate the use of condoms by their male partners.

Women and girls are also generally less able to access basic education and health care services, which are proven to be effective in decreasing an individual`s likelihood of becoming infected.

Recently, many governments and other donors have invested heavily in the development of new prevention technologies such as microbicides to protect individuals against HIV. Ideally, when available, microbicides will allow a woman to discretely protect herself without having to negotiate their use with a partner, and for that reason, they are a good investment. However, it is unlikely that microbicides will be available within the next five to 7 years. In the meantime, there are two more basic, yet effective tools available that are not being invested in, nor utilized to their full potential: female condoms and basic sexual education.

While microbicides are still being developed, the female condom is the only safe, effective women-initiated form of prevention available now. However, they are costly in comparison to male condoms. By purchasing in large quantities, the cost can and should be reduced.

Engaging young women and men in sex education is an essential part of fighting the pandemic. Education can provide youth with the tools they need to make better decisions such as practicing safer sex. They can be empowered to tackle the complicated challenges of eliminating gender inequality and the violence rooted within it.

Urgent action is needed to ensure women and men have access to all the tools available to effectively tackle the spread of HIV and AIDS:

  • Canada must invest in the female condom. We must dedicate resources to programs that assist in getting female condoms to those who need them.
  • Canada must lead the way and encourage other governments, donors and multilateral institutions to set global targets to resource and implement female condom programs.
  • We must push for the integration of sex education into all school curricula for children and youth aged ten years and older, and commit to investing further resources into supporting prevention education programs globally.

There are opportunities to make a difference. In many regions around the world, Oxfam is working with community partners to address the gender inequalities that fuel the pandemic. Every Canadian can make a difference, by calling on their local Member of Parliament, via a letter, e-mail or phone, to urge Canada to do more to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Victoria Harnett is the Ontario Region Coordinator for Oxfam Canada