So it is official: The face of HIV/AIDS is a woman’s face.
Although it was former United Nations’ Secretary General Kofi Annan who made that famous statement a few years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO), confirmed the metaphor last week when HIV/AIDS was identified as the leading cause of death and disease amongst women worldwide, especially in Africa. AIDS is officially a woman’s disease.
The study, the first from WHO on women’s health, highlights “the inequality in health care faced by females of all ages because of poverty, less access to health care and cultural beliefs that put a priority on male well-being.” The virus has the highest prevalence rates in [Sub-Saharan] Africa, where women make up an estimated 57% of adults living with HIV, and three quarters of young people living with disease there are young women aged 15-24.
Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Chief, said at the launch of the report that, “We will not see a significant improvement in the health of women until they are no longer recognized as second-class citizens in many parts of the world.”
This is a major reproductive health and rights crisis, reflecting the inequality of women globally. Violence against women, poverty, lack of access to education and basic health care services all contribute to making the face of AIDS a woman’s face.
I am normally an optimist when it comes to creating an equal world for women and girls. But this latest study combined with recent developments in the US health care reform makes the politics of women’s health startlingly clear to me.
Let’s talk about the introduction of the Stupack Amendment into the US health care bill for a minute. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the night before the health care bill passed the House of Representatives, the Catholic Church, with its ever powerful lobby, got this amendment added to the bill which denies women abortion coverage both in public and private insurance plans.
I find it shocking how the health care debate has become such a blatant battle over who dictates women’s fertility. Who really controls women’s reproduction? Who determines our access to contraception? Women certainly don’t. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute an estimated 200 million women around the world currently wish to delay or prevent pregnancy, but lack access to contraceptives.
The situation around the world for women and girls is not much better. US foreign policies play a huge role in shaping women’s access to family planning. For example, the US, the largest funder to global health programs, has a $50 billion dollar AIDS initiative called PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) which notoriously promotes the ABC (abstinence, be faithful, and as a last resort use condoms) model in Africa. Imagine an AIDS initiative that promotes abstinence, and not safe sex in the continent with the highest HIV/AIDS numbers in the world!
Today we find ourselves with HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacting women. Feminists have long advocated the fact that women cannot really be empowered until they are in control of their reproduction. In the case of HIV/AIDS, women cannot really protect themselves from this pandemic until their general oppression is addressed. And until women, not men, are dictating legislation which determines how, if at all, our bodies are governed.
*This post of mine was also published on Feministing.