By Ambassador Eric Goosby, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director
This week marks the opening of the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and this Friday, March 8th, is International Women's Day. It is therefore a fitting moment for the global community to reflect on the collective progress we have made in improving the status of women and girls around the world, and to recommit ourselves to realizing a day when all women and girls have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and contribute fully to their societies.
As the heads of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), we are firmly committed to advancing gender equality and responding to the unique health needs of women and girls. These efforts are vital, both as a human rights issue and to address the disproportionate burden of the HIV epidemic that women and girls bear globally. HIV remains the leading cause of disease and death for women of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries, and women and girls represent nearly 60 percent of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Stemming the tide of HIV is not only a public health imperative, but it also requires addressing the social drivers of the epidemic, such as gender inequalities and gender-based violence, which increase vulnerability to HIV.
The theme of this year's Commission on the Status of Women is the "elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls." Gender-based violence is itself a global epidemic, and one which fosters the spread of HIV by limiting the ability of women and girls to negotiate safer sexual practices, and to make informed, voluntary decisions about disclosing their HIV status and accessing HIV and other services, including those for sexual and reproductive health. Some studies indicate that women who have experienced violence, either as children or adults, may be up to three times more likely to contract HIV than those who have not.
The United Nations (UN) is leading global efforts on gender-based violence through initiatives such as the UNAIDS Agenda for Women and Girls (operational in 90 countries), which focuses on fostering country leadership to address the rights and needs of, and empower, women and girls, particularly those who are living with HIV. Moreover, UNAIDS has also prioritized gender equality with zero tolerance for gender-based violence in its 2011-2015 Strategy.
Over the past three years, PEPFAR has invested $215 million in gender-based violence programming, making it one of the largest investors worldwide. And these investments are producing results. Since fiscal year 2010, PEPFAR has reached nearly 85,000 people with post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV infection for sexual violence survivors. PEPFAR has also partnered with the U.S. State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues to provide $4.65 million in small grants to international grassroots organizations to address gender-based violence. Moreover, through its programs for orphans and vulnerable children, PEPFAR works with partner countries to strengthen the capacity of communities, as well as national social welfare and child protection systems, to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.
In addition, PEPFAR, UN Agencies, including UNICEF, and the private sector, have joined forces through Together for Girls -- a unique public-private partnership to address violence against children, with a focus on sexual violence against girls. To date, Together for Girls has enabled five countries to conduct national surveys documenting the prevalence and consequences of violence against children. The survey results have opened a new level of dialogue and commitment from local government and civil society to address these issues in a more comprehensive, country-driven fashion. Actions taken to date in both Swaziland and Tanzania, and the planning currently underway in Kenya, are delivering real results.
Despite this encouraging progress, much more remains to be done. Today, we call on the global community, including leaders from government, civil society, and the United Nations to strengthen and sustain its commitment to and leadership on gender-based violence and HIV. This requires accelerating progress towards reaching MDGs 3 and 6, and ensuring that HIV, gender inequality, and gender-based violence are firmly positioned on the post-2015 agenda.
This is a hopeful moment, but it is one that must be seized. Only through a global commitment to zero tolerance to violence and achieving an AIDS-free generation, including for women and girls, will we enable individuals, families, and communities to achieve their fullest potential.