Friday, February 25, 2005

[Global Poverty] Breaking the Vicious Circle of Sexism, Poverty and AIDS

By Jennifer Mascia UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 (IPS) -

An ambitious plan to curb extreme poverty and promote gender equality in the next decade will not get off the ground unless governments in the world's least developed countries put the HIV/AIDS pandemic at the top of their agendas, said U.N. experts yesterday. This means aggressively pursuing policies that promote women's empowerment and fight discrimination against people living with the disease, according to a new report titled ”Hope: Building Capacity: Least Developed Countries Meet the HIV/AIDS Challenge.” The project is a joint venture between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS). ”It is imperative that we continue to stay focused on this challenge, as we aspire to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and the goals of the Brussels Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries,” said Anwarul Chowdhury, the under-secretary-general for UN-OHRLLS, who chaired yesterday's event. ”Least developed” countries have a per capita gross domestic product of 750 dollars or less, and a low ranking on scales that measure quality of life and economic vulnerability. Fifty countries fit these criteria, most in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Hope project marks an effort to address the devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS, and specifically how the disease is undermining the ability of LDCs to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by their 2015 deadline. The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; and the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. ”Half measures are not enough,” said Desmond Johns, director of UNAIDS. ”Addressing AIDS is the key to” addressing the other MDGs. As Nafis Sadik, special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on HIV/AIDS in Asia, pointed out, gender equality in the LDCs -- 13 of which are in Asia -- is currently ”far down on the agenda.” In countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Cambodia, poor women outnumber poor men, and most have no access to any form of sex education. ”Less educated girls and young women are less able to protect themselves against becoming HIV-positive, fuelling a vicious cycle where gender disparities further contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS,” the report warns. In addition to expanding educational opportunities, extending microcredits -- small loans that stimulate local business -- to rural women would also empower them, Sadik said. ”Women fight for their rights,” she said, ”but will their governments support them?” Sometimes one or both heads of household succumb to AIDS and their children become the sole breadwinners, thereby compromising the goal of universal primary schooling for children, especially girls. The project describes a ”capacity challenge” in LDCs -- a ”weakened institutional capacity for management and delivery of services” as a result of the AIDS pandemic. ”AIDS causes between 19 and 53 percent of all government health employee deaths in Africa,” where 36 of the LDCs are located, according to the report. In many poor countries, it is the ”pillars of society” who are first affected by and lost to AIDS, crippling the ability for governments to respond to each successive wave of HIV infection. Another factor weakening health care in LDCs is the ”brain drain” occurring in countries like Zambia, for example, which lost 550 doctors since its independence in 1964. According to ”Hope,” ”The consequent challenge to economic development is the issue of loss of man power, expertise and skills to more developed countries.” One solution is to find a way to improve job benefits and satisfaction in an effort to keep skilled health care workers within LDC borders. The migratory work patterns of African miners exacerbate long-distance infection, as they are ”two and a half times more likely to be positive than non-migrant workers.” The report pushes for policies that allow miners to move around with their families as a way to curb infection. Johns acknowledged that some LDCs show a relatively low prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection. ”If we act now,” he said, ”we can maintain” this low prevalence -- most importantly through prevention among young people, a factor that was stressed repeatedly by the panel members. The fastest rate of HIV infection occurs among 15-24 year olds, according to the report. Silence is another major obstacle to meeting the MDGs. Maria Ndhlovu, a ”We Care” adviser and HIV/AIDS activist from South Africa, told a harrowing tale of being raped while her child slept on a nearby couch, an attack that led to her diagnosis with HIV. Ndhlovu described how she felt stigmatised but had no one to talk to about her HIV status. On the advice of her doctor she went to a hospital support group where, to her surprise, she found people of all races and cultures. But the stigmatisation ran so deep that participants were arranged on chairs set up back to back, facing away from each other. ”We need access to counseling,” she urged. ”We need to break the silence.” Sadik also linked the practice of arranged marriage to HIV infection on the Indian subcontinent, where many women are joined with men who are unknowingly infected with the virus. In many of these countries, marriage laws legally sanction violence against married women by their husbands, effectively silencing victims of abuse. According to the UNDP, 30 percent of people in Asia living with HIV are women, but only five percent receive the vital anti-retroviral therapy that extends life. Increased political participation can move these issues to the forefront, Sadik argued. For Chowdhury, the dilemma is also fundamentally economic. According to the UN-OHRLL, LDCs paid a combined 5.1 billion dollars in debt servicing payments. In countries like Senegal and Malawi, debt absorbs 30 percent of public income. ”It is a critical challenge for these countries as they are forced to choose between servicing their debts and investing in health and education and tackling poverty and HIV/AIDS,” he said.