The International AIDS Conference has come to be a gathering marked by new studies, new statistics, new medicines, demonstrations, prominent speakers, promising breakthroughs (sometimes), by varying constituencies vying to be heard, and by the stories of human suffering. It is a gathering of thousands of people with disparate experience from the corners of the globe and a singular commonality in their wish to overcome the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The recent 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna was marked by the rising voices and vigorous presence of women. For the first time ever, half the speakers at every plenary session were women speaking on issues relevant to women. Eighty sessions and workshops were dedicated to issues directly related to women and HIV. These raised voices were very much the results of the work of women leaders and coalitions such as Women ARISE. As the pandemic has become "feminized" advocates have made sustained efforts to gain visibility for women who are HIV positive or living with the effects of HIV.
How has the pandemic become "feminized? "
- Today over 15.7 million women are living with HIV--half of all adults living with the virus.
- Today, one million women a year are dying from AIDS
- New HIV infections among young people are increasing in the 15-24 year old age group worldwide and over 60% of those are women of reproductive age
- Grandmothers are raising grandchildren, orphans of the pandemic
- Women worldwide have no active means of protecting themselves (or their children) from HIV transmission.
- Gender inequity is one of the main drivers of the HIV epidemic
So, the big breakthrough news about a successful microbicides study with its implications for women drew unmatched excitement and praise this year. The Centre for AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, which conducted the study, announced the results of a scientific breakthrough in the fight against HIV with a vaginal gel (CAPRISA) that significantly reduces a woman's risk of being infected with HIV.
CAPRISA is more important than we can possibly calculate in addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic. For 20 years women have been pushing to have microbicides. We wanted to increase prevention measures that are in women's hands. We pushed for something that would put women in control of their vulnerability to transmission in the sexual encounter. Now, the CAPRISA study is the first proven to be effective -- 40% effective against HIV transmission for women, and over 50% for those who follow the protocol closely. While this is not all we had hoped for, it is so much more than we have had before.
If we can improve both the effectiveness of the microbicides and promote both male and female condoms, this could mean in 5 years we may actually have choices in combating transmission. Women will be able to play an active part in preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDs. Protection will finally not have to be negotiated with partners who are reluctant or unwilling to use a condom. This has the potential to vastly impact the pandemic
The women's movement started the fight to promote investment in microbicides research and accessibility to female condoms, alongside Population Council and others. We have all been waiting for a microbicides study that would prove to be effective.
Now we have the evidence that it can work but it must be advanced and improved. A major question is whether governments and philanthropic donors will invest in the research. The development of effective microbicides is clearly in the best interests of public health. Public funds such as those from the National Health Institute, governmental agencies and philanthropic funds, will be need to fund it. And fund it they must!
But they also must not let up on current prevention measures- education, male and female condom distribution, and empowering women and girls to take charge of their lives. As a woman and as a physician, I am thrilled about CAPRISA, --- but microbicides are not yet a panacea nor will they be in the hands of the women who most need them any time soon. There is still much work to be done.
Women leaders from diverse networks in every region of the world created Women ARISE to counter the continued lack of action in five key areas that impact women and girls living with and affected by HIV -- Access, Rights, Investment, Security, and Equity.
Women ARISE calls for prioritizing the needs of women and girls in regard to HIVAIDS and all aspects of reproductive rights and health.