Joan Holmes, World AIDS Day Event

November 30, 2006

Introduction

I want to congratulate St. Bart’s for their leadership and their hospitality in providing a forum to address vital issues in our city and in our world community.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m honored to be with you tonight to look at one of the world’s greatest challenges. For just a moment, imagine a scenario in which every child and adult in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and the next 144 largest cities in the United States were either dead or infected with a deadly condition, a condition for which there is no cure or vaccine. Picture that and then realize that the HIV/AIDS pandemic—is worse.

Since the identification of AIDS in 1981 more than 25 million people have died.

An estimated 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and more than 12,000 people become infected each and every day. And the majority of people who are infected don’t know it—they have no idea.

Every minute of every day at least five people die from AIDS.

Worldwide the picture is staggering. It is a pandemic in Africa and becoming one in Asia. In the United States it is more under control, but not within the African American community.

The fastest growing segment of the population being affected by HIV/AIDS is women. As the Secretary-General has said “AIDS has a woman's face.”

While there is some attempt to educate people on how to prevent the disease—because it is preventable—the majority of the efforts have been spent on treatment and on pharmaceuticals.

We hope for a vaccine, but for the immediate future at least, that’s just not going to happen.

What HIV/AIDS Reveals

A fact about HIV/AIDS that is rarely addressed is that it reveals society’s inequities and social injustices. These inequities and these injustices are the perfect breeding ground for the spread of this disease. And we see the most horrific example in the direct correlation between women’s low status, the violation of their human rights, and the transmission of HIV. Women and HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa

On a global scale it is gender inequality that keeps women uninformed about prevention.

It renders them powerless to protect themselves, puts them last in line for care and life saving treatment, and it imposes on them an overwhelming burden to care for the sick and dying.

Women often lack the power to determine if, how, when, where—and all too often—with whom, sex takes place.

In Africa, more women than men are infected. And they are infected by the millions—mostly by a loved one at home or through rape as a consequence of war or violence.

Women and HIV/AIDS in the United States

In the United States there is a growing infection rate among all women.

This is particularly the case for African American women. Of all newly diagnosed HIV-positive women in the United States, almost 70% are African American. Basketball legend Magic Johnson recently remarked “We have little Africa right here in America—right now.”

Yes, these facts are shocking but they are a natural correlate to a global culture that deems it perfectly acceptable to denigrate and demean women—perfectly acceptable to exploit them sexually.

To our shame this goes unchallenged.

We can no longer ignore that there is a global epidemic of violence against women. Sexual violence and the virus often go together. And while this is strikingly true in Africa, the phenomenon is by no means limited to Africa.

Silence surrounding women and HIV/AIDS

It is a fact of life that when women are the victims there is more silence around the issue. And this silence that shrouds the discrimination, marginalization, and disempowerment of women is the same silence that allows for the unchecked spread of this pandemic.

The Hunger Project’s Experience

The Hunger Project has experience in confronting the HIV/AIDS crisis. We’ve worked in partnership with leaders from eight African countries to create Africa’s first-ever grassroots-level workshop on HIV/AIDS and Gender Inequality. This workshop is designed for and given by grassroots women and men.

In this workshop—for the first time—men are forced to think about gender. They come to understand their own responsibility in the spread of this disease and they commit themselves to change their harmful behavior of having unsafe sex with multiple partners.

Women discover that they have rights. They learn how to protect themselves. They gain confidence and the power to say no to unsafe sex.

More than 450,000 people have taken this workshop and the results are dramatic.

There is a marked increase in demand for male and female condoms. More people—both men and women—go for voluntary counseling and testing. There is a reduction in sexually transmitted diseases and a reduction in domestic violence. And gender relations begin to be transformed.

Our experience—and our knowledge of other prevention programs—makes it clear that there are interventions that are effective.

And yet, at the same time, I’m forced to conclude that unless we have a vaccine, or until the rights of women become paramount in the HIV/AIDS struggle, this pandemic will persist.

Conclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen, the treatment of girls and women is the greatest violation of human rights in our world today.

Women’s low status is not only a moral disgrace and the most notable failure of humankind—it is also the primary cause of the persistence of hunger, a significant factor in abject poverty, and it fuels the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.

Until we recognize this—until we change this—we will continue to battle these insidious conditions with little or no success.

Therefore I endorse the recommendation of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel to create the world’s first full-fledged international agency for women.

When it is implemented and when it is funded as recommended, this new agency will play a leadership role in elevating the status of women and in solving humanity’s most intractable problems.