Women and girls under spotlight

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The causal factors of the high HIV prevalence in young women and girls in Africa will be investigated this week.

Civil society organisations, United Nations agencies and other partners are working with the SADC Parliamentary Forum to hold the first ever Women's Parliament in Mahe, Seychelles this week 5 and 6 July.

The organisers say the parliament will bring together SADC female MPs and their counterparts from other parts of the world to critically discuss and sustain the engagement of parliaments to implement Resolution 60/2 of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) which focuses on women, the girl-child and HIV and Aids. Through Resolution 60/2, the UNCSW calls for full attention to the high levels of new HIV infections among young women and adolescent girls, and their root causes. As the Report of the United Nations' Global Commission on HIV and the Law noted almost exactly five years ago, such root causes include a country's body of laws concerning HIV and Aids.

The evidence indicates that an enabling legal environment, including one that ensures both the legal and practical equality of women and girls, is much more likely to result in lower rates of HIV infection than a punitive one that enshrines historical inequalities. Consideration of women and girls in the HIV discourse is a response to the high burden of disease among women and girls in the region and globally. United Nations statistics indicate that 51% of all adults living with HIV globally as of 2015 were women aged 15 years and older. In east and southern Africa, women account for more than half of the total number of people living with HIV.

Represented in actual numbers, the data shows that 17.8 million women were living with the HIV virus across the globe, of which 900 000 accounted for new HIV infections among adults as of 2015. The United Nations estimates that an estimated 2.3 million adolescent girls and young women aged 15 – 24 years are living with HIV, constituting 60% of all young people living with the virus.

These statistics indicate the urgency needed by policy makers for countries to benefit from the demographic dividend that HIV and Aids threaten to jinx. Experts say that men tend to acquire HIV later in life, indicating that most of the infections among adolescent girls and young women could be attributed to intergenerational sex in which the younger sexual partners often have limited power to negotiate safe sex.

Girls' vulnerability in southern Africa is further compounded by their low status in a strongly patriarchal society. Against the background of often limited economic opportunities, gender-based violence and discrimination, entrenched gender inequalities, conservative harmful social and cultural norms, stigma and discrimination, produce a vicious cycle of HIV infection among women and adolescent girls. Dr Esau Chiviya, secretary-general for the SADC PF says the active involvement of MPs in general and that of women in particular, can be a game changer as the world responds to the HIV epidemic. “This Women's Parliament is therefore being convened to drum up support among Parliamentarians towards closing the gaps which leave women and girls vulnerable to HIV,” Chiviya says. “Data shows that in eastern and southern Africa 54% (10.3 million people) of all people living with HIV, were accessing antiretroviral therapy in 2015. Access to treatment has contributed to the reduction of Aids-related deaths from 2 million in 2005 to nearly 1.1million in 2015. This is commendable,” Chiviya says. He says thanks to a well-functioning and accessible prevention of mother–to-child transmission (PMTCT) programmes, more babies born to HIV-positive mothers test negative for the virus. “Within the SADC Region, there has been a 66% decline in new HIV infections among children between 2010 and 2015,” Chiviya says. Be that as it may, experts and organisers of the upcoming Women's Parliament recognise that this progress has not reached full scale because of significant inequalities in access to quality services, information and education across and within many countries in the SADC Region and beyond. They say far too many women and adolescent girls continue to fall through the cracks. The Women's Parliament is expected to come up with a position paper, and interrogate the UNCSW Resolution 60/2, with a view to give it much needed traction to close gaps and reduce the vulnerability of women and young girls to HIV. Over the two days of the Women's Parliament, delegates will hold discussions around key thematic issues which include accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for adolescent girls and young women, accessing safe abortion, addressing gender-based violence and addressing the unique needs of women and girls.

SADC Women Parliament

SADC Women Parliament

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