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The assault of AIDS - there are no parallels in history

By Harry Throssell - posted Friday, 30 June 2006

“The incredible assault of HIV-AIDS on women in particular has no parallel in human history. The pandemic is preying on them relentlessly, threatening them in a way that the world has never yet witnessed”.

This was the main conclusion of a United Nations team following a tour of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and Lesotho in 2003 by James Morris, executive director of the World Food Program, and Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa. They added “HIV-AIDS in southern Africa is an even greater disaster than the severe food crisis”.

Canadian Lewis has spent many years in Africa since his early years as a teacher on the continent. The AIDS scourge is a main theme of his 2005 Massey Lectures, Race against time: searching for hope in AIDS-ravaged Africa, broadcast in Canada last year and recently in Australia. He found “there was hunger and starvation everywhere, and while [it] was clearly influenced by successive droughts, there was no question that AIDS was playing havoc with agricultural productivity. So many farmers - overwhelmingly women - were sick, or had died, or were busy coping with the dying and orphaned, that they simply couldn’t have tilled the fields, tended the crops, or gone to the market, even had the weather patterns been hospitable.”


In a circular effect, chronic poverty and hunger helped cause AIDS, and the sickness made it impossible to work and produce the sustenance needed to keep the illness at bay, worsened again by having so many very sick at the same time. Many children had no parents and health services scarcely existed. Lewis calls it “a merciless interaction”. Morris and Lewis reported, “The apparent inability of the United Nations system and the international community to adequately support national governments in their response to the needs of the huge numbers of orphans in the region is unacceptable”. This, says Lewis, is UN-speak for “You’ve failed lamentably: for God’s sake get your act together”.

A big problem is the lack of women in significant positions at the UN. In his fourth lecture, Women: half the world, barely represented, he recalls a photograph of the 32 members of the UN secretariat in 1985 without one woman, with little improvement since. This lack of female representation is a key factor in the continuing poor status of many women in the world, with consequences for problems like AIDS.

Only 33 per cent of professional staff at the UN are female, concentrated in the lower grades. Last year men headed 12 major organisations, women four. No UN agency represents women - half the world’s population. The Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, a relatively junior organisation, had a budget in 2004 of US$45 million compared with US$2 billion for the Children Fund, a ratio of 1 to 40. “Only a tiny cadre of voices speaks strongly for women”, Lewis comments (although he excludes current Secretary-General Kofi Annan from criticism), and they are not a top priority - “just look at the toll AIDS has taken on women”. This lack of females in positions of power means the Millennium Development Goal of gender equality has no chance of being reached by 2015, the target date, with considerable implications for the struggle to survive for those faced with extreme poverty, violence, and rampant AIDS.

Lewis points out the world would be a very different place if agreements like the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, all of which contain clauses explicitly declaring equality of men and women, were actually followed.

Major international conferences in the 1990s on human rights and social development saw delegates return home “determined to light the fires of change”, but little progress followed because of the “monolithic walls of male authority”. At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna women activists created a human rights tribunal which heard “a horrifying litany of personal testimonies from 33 women about the physical and sexual violence to which they had been subjected”. This transformed the audience of more than 1,000 into “a torrent of rage and tears”. But - “as is so often the case” - all the promises made in the heat of anxiety and fear subsided.

At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the Chinese Government, “positively paranoid about the sudden onslaught of thousands of women activists”, decided to place the NGO Forum, a gathering of 30,000 grassroots representatives, in a suburb 55km from the main conference site. “The women’s movement was up in arms, but absolutely to no avail. There was not a single member government of the UN that was prepared to take up the cudgels on their behalf”.


Powerful gatherings have little effect because, Lewis argues, “Where the rights and needs of women are concerned, the gap between rhetoric and reality remains a yawning chasm”.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa was to examine what could be done about devastating poverty and its consequence of life-threatening diseases. Only three of the 17 commissioners were women, consequently, Lewis argues, it was “fatally flawed from the outset, simply by way of gender representation”.

The commission’s report was bold on some issues like foreign aid, debt, trade, climate, but on women “an absolute throwback … a feckless failure to recognise that women sustain the entire continent of Africa, and should have a definitive role in every single aspect of social, economic, political and cultural life, from peace-keeping, to agriculture to trade to AIDS”.

The 2003 exploratory team in Africa included Paula Donovan, adviser on women’s issues, who reported on the impact of AIDS. “Although the prevalence of HIV infection is highest among women and girls - who also take on nearly all the responsibility of caring for the sick and orphaned, in addition to their regular obligations such as providing food - very little is being done to reduce women’s risks, to protect them from sexual violence … or to support their coping and caring efforts. The apparent lack of urgency, leadership, direction and responsibility in the response of the UN, national governments, and the international community … is deeply troubling”.

This report to the UN seemed to be taken seriously then got lost in committees and consultations. After taking “an inordinate amount of time to get things going”, a task force was set up on a worldwide plan of action but was later whittled down. A report was released in 2004, “but as of this writing [in 2005] very little has come of it, and the situation for women remains as perilous as ever”.

The Massey lecture ends in considerable sadness as Lewis concludes, “For whatever reason, we can’t break the monolith of indifference and paralysis”, not only in the world community but in Africa itself, where governments “are profoundly deficient” on women’s rights. He points out that in the UN Human Development Report for 2003 a list of 145 countries in order of the status of women shows the bottom 20, with the worst record, are in Sub-Saharan Africa - which is also where extreme poverty and AIDS are most evident.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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