Women and girls are far more vulnerable to AIDS than men and need their own U.N. agency to defend them, just as the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF protects young people, a top U.N. envoy said on Friday.
“What has happened to women is such a gross and palpable violation of human rights that the funding must be found,” said Stephen Lewis, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special envoy for AIDS in Africa. “We must right the wrong.”
Lewis, just back from a trip to Lesotho and Swaziland in southern Africa, said 56 percent of pregnant women between 25 and 29 years old in Swaziland were infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to a recent government survey.
“That’s the highest prevalence I have ever encountered in the last five years. The mind fractures at the thought of it,” he told a news conference.
In Lesotho, roughly 30 percent of girls 15 to 17 years of age were infected, he added. “This is obviously a disaster for the country, but it reconfirms yet again the wildly disproportionate vulnerability of women and girls.”
An estimated 57 percent of infected adults 15 to 49 years old in Lesotho are women, while 43 percent are men.
Lesotho and Swaziland broadly reflect what is happening across Africa, the continent hardest hit by the pandemic, he said, arguing that the situation would be different had a well-funded and powerful agency representing women’s interests been in place.
“Not only would the women of Lesotho and Swaziland now be far better off, but we could at this point mount an unbridled campaign to demand that gender equality be legislated and enforced in these two countries,” he said.
“Years from now, historians will ask how it was possible that the world allowed AIDS to throttle and eviscerate a continent - and overwhelmingly the women of that continent - and watch the tragedy unfold in real time while we toyed with the game of reform.” he said.
Across all of sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than 60 percent of the world’s infected individuals, an estimated 4.6 percent of young women age 15 to 24 are infected with HIV, compared to 1.7 percent of young men, according to the latest available U.N. statistics.
Revision date: July 9, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.