This World AIDS Day, there is progress around the globe to celebrate, in access to HIV testing, life-saving treatment and care. We are seeing increased recognition of the role that gender norms play in the HIV response, leading to improved HIV prevention methods, targeted HIV policies and programmes, and access to comprehensive sexuality education for women and girls. There are, however, also strong alarm bells that this progress is increasingly unequal.
The world is broadly moving in the right direction. The trend is of reduced HIV infections among women and men, except in certain geographical areas and for certain age groups where urgently intensified and accelerated action is needed.
Last year a key barrier was breached. In 2020, for the first time, women aged 15 and older accounted for over 50 per cent of all new HIV infections globally. According to data from UNAIDS, women made up 65 per cent of new infections in sub-Saharan Africa and 52 per cent in the Caribbean. The number of new HIV infections is also climbing among women in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as well as in the Middle East and North Africa.
The crisis is at its worst among adolescent girls and young women who have the least power to control their own lives. In 2020, roughly 5,000 adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 were facing new HIV infections every week. Adolescent girls living with HIV now outnumber adolescent boys living with HIV by two to one.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic and social inequalities that drive such trends. Poverty and food insecurity, gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination, and child and forced marriage all raise the risk of HIV infection for women and girls and limit their access to services. Unavailability or reductions in routine HIV, sexual and reproductive health and social support services during this period have left women and girls more vulnerable, particularly during periods of lockdown and social isolation.
Informed by decades of research and by women’s own lived experiences, we know exactly what needs our urgent, concerted attention in order to reverse these trends and build stronger health systems that can withstand repeated and varied pandemics. This includes passing non-discriminatory laws and policies and ensuring adequate financing for gender equality. It also means deploying targeted, age-appropriate approaches that support women and girls, in all their diversity, with stigma-free services, along with enabling environments for women and girls to realize their rights and engage in decision-making processes at all levels of the HIV response.
With efforts that tackle power imbalances at the systemic level and undo discrimination and harmful norms and practices, together we can make substantive improvements towards gender equality.
On this important day, we pledge our commitment to ensure a more resilient and equitable future for all.