Women Particularly Vulnerable in AIDS Pandemic, Panelists Say

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Washington (CNSNews.com) - An expert panel on HIV/AIDS called on the administration Wednesday to ensure that President Bush's emergency plan for AIDS relief focuses on women, who they said are key to halting the spread of the pandemic, especially in developing countries in Africa.

They also criticized a planned extension of the global gag rule to those eligible to receive funds from the $15 billion package Bush unveiled last month in his State of the Union address.

"The application of the global gag rule to HIV/AIDS funds will force a separation of services that is extremely short-sighted and very expensive, both in terms of money and in terms of lives," said Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, at a conference on HIV/AIDS in Africa hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The gag rule, otherwise known as the "Mexico City policy," bars distribution of U.S. family planning funds to clinics in other countries that provide abortion or abortion counseling or lobby for change in abortion policies.

The policy was announced two decades ago during President Ronald Reagan's administration. President Bill Clinton lifted the controversial ban on his first day in office, and Bush reinstated it immediately after his election.

In answer to questions, Paula Dobriansky, U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs, noted that Bush's reinstatement of the policy did not affect the administration's support for family planning, which she estimated at about $435 million.

Dobriansky said all international agencies are eligible to apply for Bush's emergency relief, provided they are engaged in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and not funding abortions.

"Mexico City policy applies to foreign NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. But even those foreign NGOs that are non-compliant with Mexico City policy can come forward to seek a grant under the relief," she said.

Women represent 58 percent of HIV-infected adults in the 14 countries included in the president's emergency plan, said Gupta, who welcomed the Bush initiative.

Women's vulnerability stems from systematic discrimination in developing countries that leaves them with little or no power to control the circumstances of their lives, she said. At the same time, there is considerable evidence of the important contribution women make to the health and well-being of their families and communities, she said.

The fastest growing rate of HIV infection in developing countries is among people between 15 and 24 years of age, Gupta said. In the 14 countries included in Bush's plan, more than 6 million people in this age group live with HIV. Of those, more than two-thirds are girls.

This group must be informed about the value of sexual abstinence and of the protection afforded by condoms, Gupta said.

She praised condoms as "the most effective prevention tool we currently have" in efforts to prevent new infections.

"We know that condoms are not perfect - there are often errors in their use, human errors, and they offer slightly less than 100 percent protection, even when correctly used," Gupta said. "Condoms sometimes fail, but let us not forget that so does abstinence."

Kathleen Cravero, deputy executive director of UNAIDS, said people engaged in combating HIV/AIDS should not concentrate their efforts solely on women.

"I think there's specific improvements in services and benefits that need to be provided to make women stronger and empower them economically, but absolutely you have to look at the whole society and the families and communities," she said.

Cravero told CNSNews.com she welcomes the president's AIDS initiative.

"We think it's an unprecedented, path-breaking initiative. We think it needs to be realized as soon as possible, made real and also made to work for women," she said.

Janet Fleischman, chairwoman of a CSIS working group on HIV/AIDS, also praised the Bush initiative on AIDS.

"I think it presents a very important opportunity to make sure that the gender dimension of this pandemic becomes a central component of what the U.S. is doing in its AIDS policies and that it figures as a strategic objective of the president's new initiative," she told CNSNews.com.

See Earlier Story:
AIDS Vaccine Most Effective with Blacks, Asians (Feb. 24, 2003)

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