AIDS and gender equity

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin says AIDS has now become linked to women’s issues, such as equality and access to education.

(Kunin) The face of world wide AIDS is changing in two significant ways. One, it was once a disease that struck men almost exclusively. It is now killing more and more women. In Africa women comprise 58% of recent cases.

And two, once considered to be a certain death sentence, it is increasingly possible, through anti-retroviral medication, to enable patients with AIDS to live with a manageable chronic disease, similar to diabetes.

These two changes represent both good news and bad news. The increased number of women patients means that women have to become empowered to battle AIDS. Quite simply, they have to be strong enough to be able to say “no” to unsafe sex. This reality makes women’s equality is not only a laudatory goal; but a matter of life and death.

Often it is young African women who have sex with older men. They know they are taking risks, but their answer is that either they die of starvation now or they take the risk of dying of AIDS later. There is no simple answer to this dreadful dilemma.

A long term answer is that equality and opportunity start with education. Today, two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. In many parts of the developing world, girl children are kept home, while their brothers go to school. Once women have access to education, they have skills and they have choices. It also follows that they will have smaller families and less poverty, according to the World Bank.

The success of antiretroviral drugs for most patients is good news. The lack of affordability of these drugs in many parts of the world is the sobering news. Who gets the drugs and who doesn’t? And who decides? A recent press article described a father who became the sole support of his family after his wife died. He dare not tell his infected daughter that he is taking the drugs, but he can’t afford to give them to her because of lack of money. He will have to watch her die.

Help is slow in coming. The Bush administration made a generous commitment to supplying AIDS drugs to Africa, but there are too many strings attached and the Congress is balking.

Today, life expectancy is sub-Saharan Africa is 47. Without AIDS it would have been 62. Millions of orphans have lost both parents and face a bleak future.

We know what to do to avoid unnecessary AIDS deaths. First, educate women and then treat all patients with antiretroviral drugs; we cannot be bystanders to this global tragedy. It is time to sound the alarm anew for the global crises of AIDS, so that we can pool our vast resources – including those of the drug companies –
to stage a new assault on this dreadful disease, which now means a death sentence for some, but not for others.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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