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Message by Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2004

05-03-2004 - Women and AIDS

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to focus on the unique contributions, problems and opportunities that women face all over the world.

It is both a celebration of achievement and a reminder of how far we have to go. This year, on 8 March, the United Nations system is highlighting the many issues surrounding women and AIDS, which is also the mobilizing theme for the 2004-2005 World AIDS campaign. AIDS is damaging and threatening many advances in human development, including efforts to improve the status and well-being of women everywhere. I take this opportunity to invite all our partners to renew the commitments made in Beijing in 1995 to the empowerment of women, which is a necessary condition for development and for building a future without HIV/AIDS.
All infections by HIV, whether of women or men, are a matter of equal concern. At the same time, the recent dramatic increase in the percentage of women among adults infected by HIV is especially worrying. In 1997, women constituted 41 per cent of all HIV-infected adults. Just four years later, this figure had risen to 49.8 per cent and in 2003 it reached the 50 per cent mark. This pattern of growing rates of infection is particularly alarming among young women living in sub-Saharan Africa, where 67 per cent of infected 15 to 24 year olds are women. Globally, of the estimated 14,000 new HIV infections a day in 2003, almost 50 per cent were women. And there is no indication that the trend is reversing.
The picture appears even more grim when we examine the consequences of the epidemic on women’s and girls’ health, living conditions, life opportunities, status and dignity in many parts of the world. Whether not enrolled in the first place or pulled out of schools to care for sick relatives or because of AIDS-induced poverty, millions of girls are being denied their right to education. Victims of social stigma and discrimination, infected women are often rejected by their families and communities and condemned to poverty and exploitation before eventual death. Where treatment is available, men tend to be given priority over women. The exception may be when the woman is pregnant, in which case she may receive treatment but perhaps only during the course of her pregnancy.
HIV/AIDS is a disaster not only for individuals and their families but also for entire communities. Indeed, some nations are at risk of total collapse under the impact of the epidemic. As infection rates increase among women, who are the mainstay of families and communities, the threat of societal collapse also increases.
Thus, on this day when we celebrate women’s achievements and call the world’s attention to the plight of women, we must draw lessons from these trends to develop truly gender-sensitive responses to the fight against HIV/AIDS. One key lesson is that existing HIV prevention and protection efforts are failing women and girls and will continue to do so if the real causes of their infection are not tackled. In effect, women are becoming infected primarily because of their acute social vulnerability. Women’s lack of rights and power with respect to household income, property, life choices and even their own bodies is facilitating the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.
It is necessary, therefore, to take account of the many socio-cultural dimensions of women’s vulnerability and place these at the heart of our policies and actions. This is particularly important in the area of prevention education, which is UNESCO’s privileged field of action. We believe that prevention education should be part of the learning experiences in and out of school for each young person. Indeed, prevention education should be an empowering experience for both women and men throughout life. For maximum impact, it should be linked to access to information and resources that help to minimize the risks of HIV infection.
Moreover, the general spread of education – be it formal, non-formal or informal – empowers women and men to improve their lives and reduce the risks they face. Women who are educated are better equipped to demand and obtain their rights, and therefore to remain free from HIV infection. In many of the hardest-hit countries, educated women have been at the forefront of community mobilization against HIV/AIDS. Thus, achieving the goals of Education for All, notably the commitments that focus on gender equality in education, is a vital contribution to HIV prevention. Ultimately, empowerment through education contributes to building secure relationships based on gender equality, mutual respect and consent.
However, we should not assume that education itself is free of risks. Textbooks and other learning materials, for example, may encourage or strengthen negative social stereotypes that influence young people’s behaviour. Schools and other learning institutions may themselves be locations where violence and discrimination occur. Thus, while education may be our best “social vaccine” against HIV/AIDS, we cannot assume that it poses no dangers.
HIV/AIDS is the most deadly scourge of modern times. It is a human tragedy for all its victims, both the infected and those affected by illness, discrimination and death. By its impact on women, HIV/AIDS aggravates inequality and undermines progress towards universal human rights. By struggling against HIV/AIDS, therefore, we can help to build a world of human dignity for both men and women. UNESCO is committed to playing its full part in meeting this challenge.






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