Each year on International Women's Day, I take time to reflect on the many inspiring and courageous women I've had the privilege to meet in my travels as president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development and human rights organization that supports grassroots projects in 36 countries in the Global South. The communities I visit are often ravaged by hunger, violence and disease, all of which are byproducts of gut-wrenching poverty. And, from community to community, it always seems that the common thread I see is the marginalization of women, who are oftentimes barred from working or exploited by employers, forced to marry before reaching adulthood and have little if any access to education or information about reproductive health.
Because of the latter, the global HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to hit women in poor communities especially hard. Once infected, women become targets of discrimination and stigma that prevent them from being able to support their families, and frequently it becomes even more difficult for them to access proper health services. With infections still on the rise, the poverty in these communities deepens. Yet, I have met many women who are not willing to allow this vicious cycle to continue. They are organizing to assert their own rights or the rights of their constituents for more comprehensive and accessible health services; they are forming cooperatives to purchase drug therapies, produce food and provide childcare services; they are assisting orphans; and they are teaching girls about making their own choices with regards to their bodies.
Some of these community leaders are living with HIV or AIDS and some are not. Regardless, they have chosen to take it upon themselves to turn back the tide of HIV/AIDS in their own communities. For example, Monica Oguttu is the executive director of Kisumu Medical Education Trust (K-MET) in Kenya. Her organization works at the nexus of poverty and HIV/AIDS, integrating education on nutrition, food security, livelihood strategies and home-based care through a program where community members, including women living with AIDS, produce nutrient-rich flour. Once produced, the flour is distributed for free -- or at a low cost -- to homes where somebody is living with HIV or AIDS. K-MET also teaches its health workers about the link between nutrition and the effectiveness of drug therapies and how to prepare nutritious foods. The health workers then pass along this information to client families.
"Food insecurity is a big issue in the region," Oguttu recently told AJWS. "Several years ago, not many people talked about nutrition because they did not have any food at all... K-MET understands that nutrition and HIV/AIDS treatment do not exist in isolation; they are completely connected."
But if Congress goes through with massive cuts to foreign aid that are under consideration, the effect on groups like K-MET, will be devastating. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has saved millions of lives, prevented thousands of new infections and provided care for orphans and other vulnerable children. Yet, over the last few years, U.S. government funding for the global fight against AIDS has barely kept up with inflation and the increase in infections in the Global South. Still, administrators have worked diligently to find or create new efficiencies in PEPFAR that would allow for services to be expanded. Many of these efficiencies would be wiped out by the passage of budget cuts, called for in H.R. 1. For example, we could see the following:
- A 30 percent reduction in funds for prevention of mother-to-child transmission; The Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator estimates that 100,000 fewer pregnant women would receive services that prevent mother-to-child transmission and approximately 20,000 more infants would be infected each year with HIV;
International Women's Day is another chance to recognize the challenges and impact of women, like Monica Oguttu, and all women and girls living with hunger, disease and violence. We cannot turn our back on them now. As president of American Jewish World Service, I have seen the possibilities that lie ahead for the more than 400 grassroots organizations we support throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia. The U.S. government has the power to do more. Call on Congress to continue in its commitment to maintain robust levels of foreign assistance so we can continue to play a major role in ending the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.