Recently, I attended a discussion about HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Photojournalist Kristen Ashburn, who spent seven years chronicling the devastating impact of the disease in Malawi, shared photos from her book I Am Because We Are. Her work is a powerful call to action and a reminder that more than 25 years into the epidemic, we still have a long way to go.
Many in the room were doctors who recalled the early days of the epidemic, when little was known about AIDS and how to treat and prevent it. Dr. Holly Andersen of Cornell Weill Medical Center spoke of how heartbreaking it was back then when doctors could only try their best to comfort those patients while they watched them die, helpless. Today, while the world has made strides in increasing access to lifesaving treatment, rates of new infections remain unacceptably high: for every two people who receive treatment, five become newly infected, with women and young people increasingly vulnerable.
So how do we move forward?
Women are affected by HIV in countless ways. They are the caretakers of husbands, children, parents and neighbors living with HIV/AIDS. They worry about how to protect themselves and their children from infection. Sexual coercion and violence against women are rampant inside and outside marriage, heightening their of infection risk . Those living with HIV/AIDS, or whose partners die of AIDS, are often beaten, stigmatized and rejected by their families.
Ensuring equal access to prevention, treatment, care and support for women and girls requires ending the gender inequality and discrimination that drive the pandemic. Organizations like the International Women's Health Coalition work in partnership with advocates worldwide to ensure that the global AIDS response reflects the realities of women and girls. Their approach is ambitious: IWHC provides financial support and capacity-building for women's organizations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and mobilizes women and young people to advocate in for the policies and funding they know are needed.
In Botswana, which has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, IWHC partners with Bomme Isago Association. Founder Grace Sedio often says that when she contracted HIV, she didn't receive any superpowers -- yet in a country where HIV positive women are rarely heard, Grace has begun the country's first and only organization of women living with HIV/AIDS, bringing their needs to the forefront of national and international fora.
Bomme Isago brings women throughout the country, from rural and urban areas, together to share information about health services, nutrition and stigma. Eventually, Grace was able to coordinate meetings between these women and government officials. One Member of Parliament was so affected by what he learned from them that he spoke passionately on the floor of Parliament about the issues women living with HIV/AIDS face and how policies, programs and funding streams must meet those needs. After he spoke, another member remarked that "it was like a woman living with AIDS was standing in front of us speaking."
Local organizations in Africa are also working to change the way that future generations of men and women treat each other. A major avenue for this is comprehensive sexuality and gender education.
With the support of IWHC, Girls Power Initiative (GPI) was founded in rural Nigeria to provide a small group of teenage girls with life skills not taught in standard school curriculums. Today, GPI reaches approximately 20,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 18 through programming that arms them with information about their rights, their bodies, and the skills they need to navigate their adolescent and adult years in good health.
Ask anyone in the four Nigerian states where the Girls Power Initiative (GPI) works -- parents, teachers, doctors, even government officials -- and they will tell you: the difference between a GPI girl and a non-GPI girl is striking. In a country where adolescent girls are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies and trafficking, GPI girls are strong, assertive, articulate, informed, and keenly aware of their rights. GPI is now working with the Nigerian government and teachers to implement their curriculum throughout the country.
The way forward is simple: Women, who know women's realities, must be included in decision-making and in leadership at all levels of the global AIDS response. If we commit to providing women and girls the information, knowledge and skills they need to live healthy lives, they can affect positive change in their families, communities, and countries, and offer hope to a new generation that does not know a world without HIV and AIDS.
To join IWHC in securing a just and healthy life for women and girls worldwide, visit www.iwhc.org
As a therapist who's had many clients I grew to love die of AIDS over the years, I want to thank Kelly Castagnaro, WHIC's Director of Communications for graciously putting together this material so it can reach any Huffington Post readers who are moved to help.