HIV Priorities for Positive Change: In Women’s Words


Opening speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the side event titled “HIV Priorities for Positive Change: In Women's Words, organized by UNAIDS and UN Women, in collaboration with the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS and the ATHENA Network, ahead of the 2011 High-Level Meeting on AIDS (8-10 June 2011), UN Headquarters, 7 June 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Ms. Bachelet Speaking at the event HIV Priorities for Positive Change: In Women's Words
Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Distinguished Delegates, Fellow Panellists, Colleagues, and Friends,

I am pleased and honoured to be co-chairing this panel today with Michel Sidibe, as we launch the publication “In Women's Words, which takes stock of progress for women since 2001 and identifies women's priorities for the future.

Today's event takes place on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on AIDS. The Meeting marks both the 30-year anniversary of the start of the AIDS epidemic and the 10th anniversary of the landmark Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. This year is also the year that UN Women was created. On January 2011, UN Women, the youngest UN agency, became operational with a mandate to advance gender equality and women's empowerment.

All together, these milestones form a pivotal moment — a moment to reaffirm our commitment to a women- and girls-centred HIV response. It provides the opportunity to bring greater coherence to our efforts so that AIDS responses are part of broader gender-responsive development strategies. Indeed, we cannot achieve the Millennium Development Goals if we fail to address the linkages between these Goals.

Since 2001, significant strides have been made to better respond to the different needs of women and men within the HIV response. There has been increased political commitment: 131 out of 171 countries report that they include specific actions on women as part of national HIV plans. Key partners and donors — such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria — increasingly promote gender equality in their work to respond to the needs of women and girls. And between UNAIDS and UN Women, we are supporting the development and roll-out of the Agenda for Accelerated Action on Women, Girls, and Gender Equality and HIV, with more than 60 countries now rolling out this Agenda and engaging more than 400 civil society organizations — including women's organizations.

These efforts are important, but not enough to ensure that support for women affected and infected by HIV/AIDS is ramped up to the extent needed.

The most recent data [1] is indeed sobering, indicating that the uptake has been much too slow:

  • In 1997, 41 percent of adults living with HIV were women. This increased to 49 percent in 2001 and now stands at 52 percent.
  • In low- and middle-income countries, HIV is a leading cause of death among women of reproductive age.
  • 74 percent of young men know that condoms are effective in preventing HIV infection, compared to just 49 percent of young women.
  • Globally, 26 percent of all new infections are among young women 15-24 years of age — and most do not know their status.
  • Young women make up more than 60 percent of all young people living with HIV. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number is a staggering 72 percent.

At every point along the HIV/AIDS continuum — from preventing the spreading of the virus to diminishing its impact — this crisis is different for women and men. Disaggregating data by sex and undertaking analysis is a prerequisite to fully understanding those differences and to focusing resource allocations, medical research, legislative reform, and social security schemes in targeted ways to guarantee equal access and benefit for women and girls.

Empowering women and guaranteeing their rights — so that they can protect themselves from infection, overcome stigma, and gain greater access to treatment and care — is one of UN Women's key strategies in dealing with the epidemic.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We must ensure that gender equality and women's empowerment is more than a mantra. It must become a guiding principle in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We and all our partners must work with collective resolve to recognize women's human rights and to mirror them in all policies, plans, legislation, decision-making, representation — and most immediately and practically — in all budget allocations.

Putting an end to this epidemic is also critical to promoting healthy, safe, and productive lives for women and girls; and men and boys. For example, when AIDS enters households and communities, women invariably are the first to respond. A study conducted in sub-Saharan Africa by the Huairou Commission revealed the economic value of unpaid female care in the context of HIV/AIDS. The study found that tens of thousands of unpaid female caregivers between the ages of 20 and 49 routinely donate on average 69 hours per month to care for the sick and vulnerable — a donation of time worth significant economic value.

While very resilient, women need support to mitigate the impact of HIV and AIDS — particularly when health systems are not functioning well enough to provide required services. This work takes women away from earning incomes and opportunities for education.

In the coming decade, we need to back our commitments with actions to advance gender equality, and empower women and girls. I would like to offer three suggestions:

The first is to expand partnerships and political commitment — as we are doing here today. No one actor or sector can alone take on the task. The HIV response requires multi-stakeholder partnerships with committed participation. That means professionals from the health sector, women's rights and social communications fields, women's grass roots groups, economists and many others must be involved.

Working with key partners, including UN agencies, the private sector, champions of gender equality, civil society and especially women's organizations, we are not only more comprehensive, bringing together knowledge and expertise from different sectors to tackle challenges holistically; but we are also more powerful, working to create the momentum for the results and progress we all want to see.

Two, we need to do better at integrating our efforts and building on holistic approaches. We need to draw on what we know works, whether it is in terms of integrated services for sexual and reproductive health and HIV, or increasing economic opportunities for women in order to help prevent HIV infection; or in responding to the twin pandemics of violence against women and HIV.

We are now seeing evidence that integrated efforts work: As a catalyst for new ideas and strategic action, the UN Trust Fund to Eliminate Violence against Women in partnership with Johnson and Johnson spearheaded an innovative global learning initiative among seven grantees to determine effective practices to address the relationship between HIV and violence against women.

And three, we need to invest in women's leadership including in their efforts to organize and mobilize. While this is not happening at the rate that it should, HIV-positive women's groups and those who champion their cause are increasingly raising their voices and perspectives, transforming policies and programmes.

To give you an example, in Senegal, through support from the Fund for Gender Equality, the Alliance Nationale Contre le Sida and the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa compiled baseline data on the situation of women affected by HIV as well as identified existing protection gaps in the current law on HIV/AIDS. Using this data, ANCS and SWAA advocated with members of the Senegalese Parliament to advocate for the necessary legislative reform to mainstream gender in the existing law on HIV/AIDS in Senegal.

In this and other ways, UN Women is committed to supporting the many calls for women's leadership, from women's groups and HIV-positive women's networks in all countries. The more that women and girls have a voice in what, where and how strategies are rolled out, the more likely it will be that they will reach those who most need it.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The publication being launched today, and the virtual consultation that led to it, also demonstrates the leadership of the women's movement and, in particular, women living with HIV, in the HIV response. Whether women are advocating for their rights, identifying priorities that need to be addressed, or providing care to those in their families and communities, women are “agents of change.

And here, as defined by the women who provided their “voices to this consolidation of priorities, we are referring to women in general — whether young, old, rural, urban, mothers, wives or grandmothers.

As we enter the fourth decade of the epidemic, we need to reflect on the past successes, learn, and develop a map going forward. I am looking forward to hearing from our esteemed panel their thoughts, ideas, and suggestions on how to advance the rights of women in the context of HIV in order for them to prevent infection, access care and treatment and end the epidemic once and for all.

Thank you.


  1. UNAIDS Report - AIDS at 30 (2011) and UNAIDS Report of the Global Epidemic (2001).