Gender inequality fuels global AIDS pandemic, speakers say
Aug. 23, 2006
|A UMNS photo by Donald E. Messer
"Women carry a disproportionate share of the burden of the HIV and AIDS crisis," Bishop Fritz Mutti declares.
By Donald E. Messer*
TORONTO (UMNS) — The increasing percentage of women infected with HIV
and AIDS was a major concern at the Aug. 13-18 International AIDS
“Women carry a disproportionate share of the burden of the HIV and
AIDS crisis,” declared retired Bishop Fritz Mutti, chairperson of the
United Methodist Global AIDS Fund. “Unless gender inequality also is
addressed, emphasis on the familiar prevention strategy of ‘ABC’
(abstinence, being faithful, and condoms) will be doomed to failure.”
Bishop Mutti’s remarks at an ecumenical pre-conference of more than
500 religious leaders were reinforced at the opening session of the
UNAIDS reports women account for almost 46 percent of the estimated
40 million people infected with HIV and AIDS in the world, and the
percentage is increasing yearly. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 57 percent
of infected people are women. Each day, 1,500 children worldwide become
infected with HIV at birth. Last year, 3 million people died of AIDS,
and more than 4 million became newly infected with HIV.
Microbicides for women
Bill and Melinda Gates, the richest couple in the world, called upon
some 20,000 participants in the conference to “put the power to prevent
HIV in the hands of women” by accelerating research on microbicides and
other new HIV prevention tools. Microbicides are prevention products
such as vaginal creams, gels and capsules that would destroy harmful
microbes, including HIV. Still under scientific study, microbicides
would aid in prevention, but they are not yet 100 percent effective.
“We need tools that will allow women to protect themselves,” said
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft Corp. “This is true whether the woman
is a faithful married mother of small children or a sex worker tying to
scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives, who she is, or
what she does, a woman should never need her partner’s permission to
save her own life.”
Melinda Gates emphasized that every life is of equal importance and
“saving lives is the highest ethical act. ... In the fight against AIDS,
condoms save lives. If you oppose the distribution of condoms,
something is more important to you than saving lives.” She noted that
less than one in five people at risk of HIV infection has access to
condoms, clean needles, education and testing.
“That’s a big reason,” she said, “why we have more than 4 million new infections every year.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made stopping AIDS the top
priority of its billion-dollar donations. On the eve of the conference,
the couple contributed an additional $500,000 to the Global Fund to
Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an organization initiated in 2001
at the urging of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Caregivers and marching grandmothers
|A UMNS photo by Donald E. Messer
Former President Bill Clinton (right) and Bill Gates address the 2006 International AIDS Conference.
“Women bear the brunt of almost all the care of orphans and provide
the overwhelming majority of home-based care to persons suffering with
HIV and AIDS,” said Linda Bales, a staff executive with the United
Methodist Board of Church and Society. Global AIDS has resulted in more
than 15 million orphans and vulnerable children, and women are the
To illustrate the inequities in gender, 100 Africans and 100
Canadians participated in a colorful “Grandmothers March against AIDS.”
A panel of women from Africa, Asia, and North America noted that
violence is a close companion of the virus. They said young girls and
women are vulnerable to the disease because of domestic violence, rape
and the absence of control over their own bodies. Panel members also
cited the lack of education and inadequate access to female condoms as
additional reasons for increasing numbers of women being affected by the
Due to the pervasive male practice of having more than one sexual
partner, faithful women often get infected even though they have had
only one partner. It was noted, for example, that in some parts of
Africa, a woman on her wedding day doubles her chances of getting HIV.
Circumcision of men
Prevention possibilities for men were also highlighted during the
16th session of the biannual conference. Male circumcision may reduce
the risk of contracting HIV by up to 60 percent, according to recent
scientific studies. Preliminary studies in South Africa were cancelled
when it appeared that circumcision was significantly reducing HIV
transmission, and it was deemed unethical not to offer the option to all
men in the study. Results from Kenya and Uganda are expected in 2007.
In several candid speeches, former President Bill Clinton said that
while “persuading boys and older men to get circumcised might be a
‘hard-sell,’” every life-saving approach must be employed. The future
challenge will be convincing men that circumcision can be safe,
effective and not too painful. Decisions as to how much money should be
invested in providing access to this treatment have yet to be made.
Both Clinton and Bill Gates stressed their support for President
George Bush’s efforts against AIDS. They noted that as a result of the
administration’s pledge of $15 billion over five years, more than
500,000 people in 15 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean are
receiving antiretroviral drugs.
No magic solution
|A UMNS photo by Donald E. Messer
the AIDS challenges facing women are (from left) Muso Njoko, South
African activist; Melinda Gates, co-chairperson, Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation; Judy Woodruff, CNN correspondent; and Dr. Nafia Sadki of
Pakistan, special U.N. envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia.
Conference speakers said dreams of a vaccine or a cure remain at
least 10 years distant. No magic solution exists for HIV prevention. A
continuing danger of every prevention mechanism — be it condoms,
circumcision, or microbicides — is that some people will increase risky
sexual behavior, leading to more, rather than fewer infections. Public
health officials, therefore, recommend education programs that emphasize
both risk avoidance (abstinence, faithfulness) and risk reduction
(condoms and clean needles).
Dr. Cristina Pimeta of Brazil noted that less than 50 percent of the
world’s youth have access to information about prevention. She
highlighted the importance of linking prevention to treatment and care
to address the current tendency to see biomedical interventions as quick
or magic solutions to HIV and AIDS prevention.
Enhancing women’s status
Stephen Lewis, U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, closed the
international conference by declaring, “Gender inequality is driving the
pandemic, and we will never subdue the gruesome force of AIDS until the
rights of women become paramount in the struggle.”
He called for the creation of a new U.N. agency for women, “staffed
to the teeth,” and dedicated to enhancing the role and status of women
Bishop Mutti said he hopes United Methodists, especially women, will
embrace efforts to raise $8 million through the United Methodist Global
He noted that Musa Dube, a United Methodist woman and a New Testament
professor from Botswana, will keynote the upcoming United Methodist
Global AIDS Conference in Washington Sept. 8-9. In keeping with the
conference theme to “Lighten the Burden,” Dube will challenge United
Methodists to join women and other activists around the globe in working
towards an AIDS-free world.
*Messer is the executive director of the Center for the Church and
Global AIDS and president emeritus of the Iliff School of Theology,
Denver. He is the author of Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis, and co-author with former Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole of Ending Hunger Now: A Challenge to Persons of Faith.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.