Of all the secondary school students in Africa, only 16% are girls.
To raise this number, Dr. Sherryl Broverman of Duke University and Dr. Rose Odhiambo of Egerton University in Kenya collaborated to found the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research (WISER) in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, an area with some of the highest HIV infection rates in the country. The school is an effort to empower women and help them avoid the cycle of early marriage, early childbirth, HIV, and poverty.
Women, their health and their education, are the heart of all of these issues, says Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006. He spoke at Duke last week as a guest of Duke’s Global Health Institute as a part of WISER week.
“I believe with every fiber of my being that the single most important battle we face on this planet is the struggle for gender equality,” Lewis said.
In Africa, 61% of people infected with the HIV virus are women. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, almost 80% of those infected are women and girls.
Lewis believes that gender inequality is what puts women at risk for HIV. Because African women lack sexual autonomy, they are not in a position to demand safe sex or use of a condom. As a result, they are very vulnerable to the virus, and also to various kinds of abuse. Hundreds of thousands of women are subject to sexual violence. “The turbulence in the society unleashes male behavior of the worst kind ... There is a tremendous sense of entitlement,” Lewis said. And where there is rape and violence, inevitably, there is HIV.
Even more devastating for many HIV positive women is the inaccessibility of drugs to prevent transmission of the disease to their children. Although certain drugs can reduce the chance of transmission by 50-70%, fewer than a third of pregnant women have access to them. “It’s soul-destroying for these women,” Lewis said.
Of the half-million HIV positive babies born in Africa each year, 50% die before age 2, and 80% die before age 5. “It doesn’t happen in the U.S. or Canada or Europe because we provide a full course of retrovirals [to pregnant women],” Lewis said.
Lewis expressed frustration with the lack of international attention to the issues of AIDS and women’s health in Africa. He cited the United States’ government’s ability to spend $3 billion a week for the war in Iraq, yet barely even $10 billion a year for the war against AIDS.
“I don’t understand the way the world works ... I live my life ricocheting between rage on the one hand and despair on the other.”
However, Lewis is hopeful for the future. He repeatedly praised the efforts of WISER and international NGOs and the progress they’ve been able to achieve around the world. His own NGO, Aids-Free World, promotes urgent and effective international responses to the AIDS crisis by focusing on the achievement of gender equality.
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