Role of women and girls stressed as Bangkok conference opens

Published: 12 July 2004 0:00 CET

Christopher Black

Red Cross and Red Crescent figures at an international AIDS conference have warmly welcomed an opening speech by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, in which he emphasised the role of women and girls in stemming the spread of the virus.

Opening the XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, attended by 20,000 delegates including more than 80 representatives of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Annan warned that despite some progress, the world was not on track to reduce the scale and impact of the AIDS epidemic by 2005, as world leaders had promised.

The UN chief said empowering women and girls with the education, legal rights and economic power to protect themselves against the virus was vital.

In what he called a "terrifying pattern", Annan said women accounted for nearly half of all adult infections. In sub-Saharan Africa that figure was up to 58 per cent.

"Yet one third of all countries still have no policies to ensure that women have access to prevention and care," he said, adding that poverty, violence and abuse put women at risk of HIV.

"This can only be prevented by empowering women and girls to protect themselves against the virus. In other words, what is needed is the education of girls."

One of the Red Cross Red Crescent delegates at the conference, Galina Kuvshinova of the Irkutsk branch of the Russian Red Cross, said women could be a conduit or a barrier to spreading HIV.

Until recently in Irkutsk, 90 per cent of HIV-positive people were injecting drug users, she said. And women with HIV risked passing on the virus to their babies.

So the Russian Red Cross started programmes aimed at reducing the rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, protecting HIV positive children from being abandoned, and reducing the harm associated with injecting drug use.

Teenagers and women of childbearing age were specially targeted for HIV prevention messages about sexual activity, which was becoming the dominant way HIV was spread, Kuvshinova explained.

"We conducted a survey with young people recently and 60 per cent said they know how to use condoms but don't actually use them because they have permanent partners,” she said. “Is someone a permanent partner after one year? Or one month?”

"Our message is that you are showing that you care about a person by using condoms, that you would like to protect them, not that you don't trust them."

The success of this message with women and girls could be crucial to slowing the epidemic in Russia.

Dr. Soulany Chansy, HIV/AIDS programme coordinator for the Lao Red Cross, said Kofi Annan's message had been inspiring.

"When I heard him I felt proud that this was our right. I took from him that we women should take our power. He was speaking specifically about women and children, and this is an area that is a problem in my country too,” she said.

"But it is a message for every woman in the world, not just in Laos."

Around the world, women often depended on their husbands financially, making them less able to negotiate condom use, she said.

Families concentrated on educating boys - so girls often had a lower literacy level and were less likely to get the information they needed to protect themselves from HIV, said Dr Soulany, who will attend a session at the five-day conference on mobilising women against the AIDS epidemic.

Yet women have shown the potential to dramatically reduce the severity of the epidemic, as sex workers in Thailand have shown by making condoms part of their normal work.

Red Cross Red Crescent representatives were welcomed to the conference at a reception co-hosted by the Thai Red Cross and the International Federation’s regional delegation in Bangkok and presided over by Princess Somsawali of Thailand.