UN Committee on Women’s Rights Takes Strong Stand on Gender and HIV

Caption: Women outside an HIV clinic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. EGPAF is focused on meeting the needs of women living with HIV in DRC and 14 other countries.

James Pursey/EGPAF

Last week, the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women  concluded with delegates taking a strong stand on the issue of gender and HIV during its session meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The Committee said that HIV needs to be increasingly integrated into the reporting and implementation of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and that the support of UN agencies and civil society is crucial to achieving this goal.

As part of the event, EGPAF submitted a report  on the status of women living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the current session of the CEDAW Committee. The report found that there are limited services available to women for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) in the DRC, with only 11.3 percent of health facilities in the country offering PMTCT services. In fact, national PMTCT statistics indicate access to and uptake of PMTCT services are as low as 4 percent in the DRC. The report also noted that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is one of the greatest threats to women’s health in the DRC, and that inequality and physical and sexual partner violence have been linked to a substantial proportion of new HIV infections in the country, yet the issue is not being adequately addressed. EGPAF experts say that laws against SGBV exist, but are relatively unknown among the general population and are thus rarely enforced.

A side event specifically focusing on gender, HIV, and CEDAW took place at the UN headquarters in Geneva, bringing together senior representatives of UNAIDS, UNDP, OHCHR, UN Women, and the CEDAW Committee to discuss how gender inequality increases the vulnerability of women and girls to HIV.  The huge turnout for the meeting, including representation from such a wide range of UN agencies, demonstrated the importance being placed on the link between HIV/AIDS and women’s rights.

Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri spoke passionately about the intersection between HIV and human rights, and what this means for women in particular.

“When we talk about HIV, we are not talking about a medical issue alone – HIV has important social, cultural and economic implications,” Flavia Pansieri said.

“The figures don’t tell us the whole story – HIV infection is a problem where we have disproportionate challenges of exclusion, poverty, and discrimination. Gender discrimination is at the heart of the greater vulnerability that women experience. When they don’t have strong socio-political economic roles and status, and when employment and education opportunities are fewer simply because they are women, the threat of exposure to HIV infection is much higher.”

Pansieri urged civil society to use the human rights apparatus, including CEDAW, to include the response to HIV/AIDS within a human rights framework and establish effective accountability mechanisms so that those responsible can be held accountable when laws are not being implemented to protect and promote the rights of women living with HIV.

“A human rights approach can be a very powerful tool, and we need to ensure we are addressing all HIV/AIDS issues with a human rights lens,” added Pansieri.

Jan Beagle from UNAIDS said that HIV “casts a harsh light on our societies - exposing inequalities and violence against women.” She said that gender will be a core pillar of UNAIDS’ global strategy, and to further this, they welcomed the opportunity to work more closely with CEDAW.

“HIV is so much more than a health issue – it is a gender issue, a rights issue, a development issue, and an economic issue,” Beagle said.

“Gender inequality continues to fuel the epidemic and put women at greater risk of infection. Too many women are still denied their rights enshrined in CEDAW and CEDAW must be central in our journey to end AIDS.”

Eliane Drakopoulos is Public Policy and Advocacy Officer for the Foundation, based in Geneva, Switzerland.