Facing the future together: UN SG's taskforce on women, girls and HIV in Southern Africa
“I don’t want to die before I’m 110 with great grandchildren. I don’t want to die before I turn 25. I refuse to
sit down and watch my generation fall to pieces. I am going to make a difference…will you?”
Rumbidzai Grace Mushangi, 15, Zimbabwe1
If we can stop the spread of HIV among women and girls in southern Africa, we can turn the epidemic
around. While HIV prevalence is high among all sexually active women, girls and young women are
particularly affected – the vast majority of young people aged 15-24 living with HIV/AIDS in southern
Africa are female. Even more worrying, data shows that many young women are being infected almost
as soon as they start having sex.2
The findings of the United Nations Secretary General’s Task Force on Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS in
Southern Africa show that gender inequality fuels HIV infection because many women and girls cannot
negotiate safer sex or turn down unwanted sex. The findings also demonstrate that HIV/AIDS deepens
and exacerbates women’s poverty and inequality because it requires them to do more domestic labour
as they care for the sick, the dying and the orphaned.
Although the problems are complex, the Task Force has identified key actions in relation to its six focus
issues, which can make an immediate difference:
Although women may have greater access than men to anti-retroviral treatment through public health
systems, they may miss out on treatment opportunities because of fear that their partners will discover
their HIV status.
Prevention among Girls and Young Women
We must collapse the bridge of infection between older men and younger women and girls.
Many girls have sexual partners who are five to ten years older than them, and these men are more
likely to be infected than boys and younger men. Relationships with older men are also more likely to be
premised on unequal power relations, leaving girls vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
We must protect female enrolment figures – AIDS may be taking girls out of school.
Although gender parity has largely been achieved in educational enrolment in southern Africa, we need
more information on the impact of the epidemic on the education of girls, particularly orphans.
Violence against Women and Girls
We must protect girls and women from the direct and long-term risks of HIV infection as a result of
Girls and women who have been sexually assaulted are at increased risk of HIV infection, through direct
transmission and because of the long-term effects of sexual violence on risk-taking behaviour
Property and Inheritance Rights
We must protect the rights of women and girls to own and inherit land
In Task Force countries there are but a handful of small initiatives by determined organisations that
provide women and girls with legal education and advice or assistance to prevent dispossession or
restore taken property.
Women and Girls as Care Givers
We must put in place a Volunteer Charter articulating the rights and responsibilities of women and men
who provide care and support to the sick and orphaned.
Communities, families, governments and development partners cannot continue to rely on ‘women’s
resilience’ to provide safety nets for the sick and orphaned.
Access to Care and Treatment for Women and Girls
We must address gender norms, violence, stigma and discrimination as potential barriers to women’s
access to care and treatment.
Gaps in the Response
The report highlights a number of important gaps in the response by governments, international agencies
and civil society organisations identified by the Task Force:
Strategies that Work
Many people know what the gender-based challenges facing women and girls are. However, the
complexity of gender relations means that many find it difficult to focus on what exactly to do.
Although girls and women represent the bulk of new infections, budgets, programmes, policies and
human resource commitments do not reflect this. Many interventions continue to be aimed at an
imaginary boy or man or a fictional gender-neutral public.
Even organisations that are explicitly trying to address the problems of women and girls find it
difficult to deal with the root causes of gender inequality. Because changes in gender relations occur
slowly, not enough funding or attention is given to programmes that try to address the deeper
connections between gender and HIV/AIDS.
After twenty years of HIV/AIDS programming, and thirty years of gender and development programming
we know that applying the following approaches can yield success:
Strengthening the Response
Challenging the social norms and values that contribute to the lower social status of women and girls
and condone violence against them, e.g. through dramas and community-based educational
Increasing the self-confidence and self-esteem of girls, e.g. through life-skills and other school-based
programmes in which they are full participants;
Strengthening the legal and policy frameworks that support women’s rights to economic
independence (including the right to own and inherit land and property) e.g. by restructuring justice
systems, enacting laws and training NGOs to popularise these laws;
Ensuring access to health services and education, in particular life skills and sexuality education for
both boys and girls, e.g. by training health workers and teachers on gender, and re-orienting health
and education systems so that they are flexible, participatory and community-centred rather than
bureaucratic and hierarchical; and
Empowering women and girls economically, e.g by providing them with access to credit, and
business, entrepreneurship and marketing skills.
There are actions that can be taken today, which will make a significant difference. In order to expand
the capacities of communities and of those working on HIV/AIDS programmes to do what is necessary to
ensure the fulfilment of the rights of women and girls, the following actions are necessary:
In the weeks, months and years following this report, we must work with girls and women to thoroughly
analyse their situation using a human rights- and gender-based approach. Together, we must devise
strategies that fight HIV/AIDS and simultaneously address gender inequality. We must take this task
seriously. To ensure success we must redirect existing resources and mobilise significant additional
funds. And we must make sure these resources get to where they are most needed, to the women and
the girls in the cities, towns and villages of southern Africa.
We must expand the pool of gender experts. Despite the fact that many gender frameworks have
been developed, not enough people know how to ‘do gender’ – in other words, how to conduct a
thorough gender analysis of the situation and design responses tailored to the different requirements
of men, women, boys and girls. There is an urgent need to make the language of gender more
practical and accessible to people at community and programme levels.
We must address the fears and resistance that surround gender. Some women’s groups have
argued that there has been little progress towards gender equality in some spheres because an
honest analysis of power relations provokes discomfort or even active resistance on the part of some
men. As a result, those who occupy decision-making positions in donor agencies, community-based
organisations, households, governments and NGOs do not prioritise initiatives that seek to challenge
the status quo.
We must support and strengthen local women’s movements and organisations. Partnerships
between governments, women’s organisations and community-based organisations are crucial.
We must increase public awareness and debate about the relationship between gender inequality
We must address the causes of gender inequality, not only the consequences.
Gupta/Tallis Gender & HIV/AIDS Framework (See Annex 1)
Five types of HIV programmes:
Stereotypical – The programmes promote images of men as forceful and powerful while women are
portrayed as “powerless victims.”
Gender-neutral – These programmes do not distinguish between the different needs of women and men
and are aimed at the general population. While they are not trying to deliberately exclude women, they
often are based on research and messages that have been tested on men, or work better for men.
According to Tallis the bulk of AIDS programmes fall into this category.
Gender-sensitive – These programmes respond to the different needs and constraints of individuals
based on their gender and sexuality. Some current AIDS programmes operate at this level, where
women’s practical needs are identified and attempts are made to meet those needs through service
delivery (e.g. female condoms). Some of these programmes work with men, often helping them to
consider how they can make better, safer decisions to protect themselves, their partners and their
children. However, these programmes operate within the paradigm of men’s roles as providers, decisionmakers
and heads of households.
Empowering – These programmes support women to take the necessary actions at personal, as well as
group/collective/’‘community’ levels. Yet without shifting the laws and community values that often make
women’s lives harder, empowerment is not sustainable.
Transformational – The objective of these programmes is to transform gender relations between
women and men so that they are equitable. They focus on radical change at the personal, relationship
(including the redefinition of heterosexual relations), community and societal levels. Transformational
programmes address the systems, mechanisms, policies and practices that are needed to support such
genuine change and include changing laws such as those governing property and inheritance, domestic
violence and marital rape, changing the attitudes of men and women about male and female behaviour,
and empowering women to access credit, employment and other opportunities for broader development.
Posting on UNICEF’s Voices of Youth Website: http://www.unicef.org/voy/
Pisani, E, The Epidemiology of HIV at the Start of the 21st Century: Reviewing the Evidence, UNICEF Programme Division
Working Paper, New York, 2003, p. 27