Observations of an AIDS Conference Virgin

We know that until women are empowered with managing the method of prevention, until women have the means to protect their own health status, we must indeed worry that -- half the sky is falling.
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I attended the 18th International AIDS Conference (IAC) 2010 in Vienna, representing Women ARISE -- a coalition of 40 international NGO's, to the media. It was my first IAC conference. Yes, I was an" AIDS conference virgin." Having worked to advance the rights of women, the recognition of reproductive health as a human right, and equality for LGBT people for over 20 years, I thought I'd seen it all -- but I learned far more than I had expected to at the IAC.

We've all heard that Women hold up half the sky -- but do we know that women also comprise more than half the HIV positive people around the globe? And that these numbers are increasing? Are women perceived as people whose vulnerability and HIV status needs to be addressed, or simply as vectors in an overwhelming pandemic?

The time to focus on women and girls and HIV has come.

In 2012 the International AIDS Conference (IAC) will be held for the first time in the United States. This is a critical opportunity to bring the needs of women and girls to the fore.

In 2010 the IAC plenary sessions and workshops had at least 50% female representatives addressing issues relevant to women and HIV. This was a new and significant accomplishment for those who recognize the growing needs of women and girls and seek empowerment of women in the fight against HIV/AIDS. But workshops were scheduled at conflicting times, speakers were stretched thin, and audiences had to choose between equally compelling events which addressed relevant issues. 2012 is surely the time for the establishment of a women's issues track at the IAC, with central focus on those critical issues which have for too long been ignored or sidelined:

Girls of reproductive age, 15-25 year olds, lead the way across the globe in new HIV infections. In less than a decade a generation of HIV+ young women will bring the next generation of children into the world. We have long seen this trend in Africa. Now studies from Latin America tell us the same thing: women of childbearing age are the most vulnerable to HIV. Will we continue to view them only as vectors in the pandemic? Or, will we recognize that they are our daughters, their children our grandchildren who need care and attention?

Sex workers across the globe are most often perceived as vectors of HIV, rather than people vulnerable to HIV. Sex work is neither a luxury nor an indulgence. It is a necessity for thousands of under resourced women globally. Often it is the only means to food, clothing, and shelter for themselves and their families. It is existence itself. How will we address their needs?

Women affected by HIV. Grandmothers, expecting to be cared for by their grown children, are instead raising grandchildren who are orphaned by the impact of AIDS, a generation of parents wiped out by HIV/AIDS. These grandmothers have little means to fend for themselves let alone feed, clothe, shelter and educate these orphans. Will we address this challenge that is a distinct contributor to the profile of hunger and poverty throughout Africa and elsewhere?

HIV and Violence and against women are inextricably tied to one another. We see this in reports from around the world including the United States.

Women Who Sleep with Women (WSW) are an exceptionally 'invisibilized," growing cohort of women under-educated to the risks of HIV. To address their needs, we must first acknowledge their existence.

Women and IV Drug use. In Central Asia and along the Silk Road drug traffic continues as drug use increases. Women, by tradition unempowered, in the setting of heroin and opium use reportedly are the last to use the shared needle, and thereby the most vulnerable to HIV transmission.

Women over the age of 50 are part of the baby boom generation entering their senior years. There is no age limit when it comes to sexual activity or vulnerability to HIV. The widespread lack of education and awareness leaves this generation of women at high risk for HIV transmission.

Looking back at 2010 IAC, despite the increased visibility of women and relevant concerns, the media largely ignored these issues. The realities of women and girls were largely eclipsed. As in past years the media trumpeted the words of male leaders. Scientific developments, intentionally held to be announced at the conference, were touted. When the dust settled two developments stood out: advances in microbicide research (Caprise), as a prophylactic to HIV transmission, and ART treatment as a preventive measure. These advances hold considerable promise in the fight against HIV particularly because they could place self-protection in the hands of women. They also have significant drawbacks. Each has a long way to go in research and development.

Predictably, months after their announcement at IAC, as the need for further research on microbicides is articulated, no one is stepping up to the plate to resource this research. The New York Times recently reported that governments, pharmaceutical companies, and donors each point to the other saying -- "Not our responsibility -- they should do it."

So we are at a standstill. Women must still negotiate the use of a condom to protect themselves. These new advances promise the possibility of putting protective measures directly into the hands of the most vulnerable: women and girls. We know that until women are empowered with managing the method of prevention, until women have the means to protect their own health status, we must indeed worry that -- half the sky is falling!

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