Opening Remarks by Professor Sheila Tlou, Director, Regional Support Team – Eastern and Southern Africa at the High-Level Task Force for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV Meeting 28 September 2011, Johannesburg
Distinguished members of the Taskforce, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me a great pleasure to welcome you to Johannesburg on this historic occasion of the inaugural meeting of the Eastern and Southern Africa High Level-Task Force for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV.
I wish to thank you, on behalf of SADC, COMESA, the EAC and the UN family for agreeing to be members of this eminent Taskforce and for finding the time to deliberate over the next two days, on the important task that lies ahead of you.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Your appointment to the Taskforce comes at a very critical time in the AIDS response. It takes place on the threshold of the UN General Assembly High-Level Meeting on AIDS, where an ambitious Political Declaration was reached which, if implemented successfully, will turn the tide of the epidemic globally.
In our ESA region, the region most affected by HIV, the face of the epidemic continues to be that of a woman and in particular, a young girl. We have spoken about this repeatedly and we have made calls for exerted efforts and accelerated action but the one thing that has remained resilient over the past 30 years of the epidemic is the disproportionally higher levels of infection among women and girls.
Young women are particularly vulnerable to HIV, accounting for 64% of infections among young people worldwide. In sub Saharan Africa, young women make up to 71% of young people living with HIV. This is an unacceptable and unjust situation.
Human rights and gender equity can not be separated from prevention and treatment, and we must instinctively understand that the AIDS response must be rights-based. It would be very irresponsible not to help women and girls—to secure their right to a healthy and prosperous future.
This is exactly why; Member States have made clear commitments to eliminate gender inequality and gender-based violence, and to increase the capacity of women and adolescent girls to protect themselves from HIV infection. However, none of the ambitious targets set at the High-Level Meeting can be achieved without clearly defining our roles and how we can actively participate in the AIDS response.
Members of the esteemed taskforce, I am convinced beyond any shadow of doubt that we will continue to be shackled by the high rates of infection UNLESS we take collective, urgent and concerted action to respond to the needs of women and girls in the context of HIV. I mean serious actions in ways that we have not done before.
Now is the time to ruffle features, to be bold and to be politically incorrect if this is what it takes to turn the epidemic around. We depend on you to help us make that urgent call and bring attention to the need for stronger leadership in this area.
During the next day and a half, we will deliberate over:
- The HLM Political Declaration and its implications for our region and for women, girls, gender equality and HIV;
- The Epidemic in the region and areas that require serious attention
- A plan of action for the High-Level Taskforce that starts in this last quarter of 2011 and continues into 2012; and
- An agreement on strategic steps for the taskforce to achieve high level visibility and impacts for women and girls in our region.
In our deliberations, I sincerely hope we will address key issues such as
- Keeping HIV+ mothers alive;
- Stopping new infections among young girls;
- Meeting the sexual and reproductive needs of women in the region, in particular HIV+ women and adolescents;
- Halting Gender Based Violence as well as
- Evidence-based planning & resources mobilisation
And most importantly – the need for accountable leadership at all levels!
I would also ask that we courageously but constructively shine the spotlight on countries where things are not going well. You have been appointed as Taskforce members because we believe that individually and collectively, you bring the courage of conviction to “speak the truth to empower”, to engage with countries in this region and to apply the necessary pressure so that we can begin to see the light at the end of this long tunnel.
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to comment, on the emergence of a distractive and confusing debate in the region around “engaging men”.
We ought to be clear about what we mean when we say we want to “engage men” - it should be clear in our minds that we are dealing with a differentiated epidemic, which affects men and women in our region differently.
Let us also be abundantly clear about “knowing our epidemic”; If indeed, women and girls are 6 to 8 times more likely to be infected than men and boys, we can all work to bring down new infections among both men AND women. However, we should make it crystal clear that we must boldly and unapologetically focus on women and girls and bringing down their disproportionately high levels of infections. When we say that we are engaging “men and boys”, it should therefore be understood, that we are engaging them for their own health, but we are engaging them primarily to support our efforts to bring down new infections among women.
Perhaps we will want to have a debate about these issues over the next day and a half so that our actions as a Taskforce are focused, evidence informed and properly prioritised.
Ladies and Gentlemen of this auspicious High Level Task Force, allow me to conclude by stating that we count on all of you to seize every opportunity to ensure that women, girls, boys and men in Eastern and Southern Africa truly experience: Zero new HIV infections; Zero Discrimination; and Zero AIDS -related deaths.
You have a real opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of women and girls in our region – the moment is yours to stretch your arms longer and wider than ever to grab this opportunity. I wish us all successful deliberations!