December 13, 2019

By Rosie Jervase, Key Correspondent for IGHN.

In 2016, adolescent girls and young women represented 61 per cent of young individuals living with HIV worldwide (UN Women, 2016). In sub-Saharan Africa, 67 per cent of new infections in young individuals are represented by adolescent girls and women aged 15 to 19 years (UNAIDS, 2019). UNAIDS also reports that young women aged 15 to 24 years are twice as likely to be living with HIV than men (2019). This highly gendered disproportionality in HIV infection is an outcome of women’s lack of sexual and reproductive health rights. HIV and AIDS is, therefore, not only a global public health issue but a gender inequality issue.

On November 28th, 2019, ‘The Irish Aid Annual Professor Father Michael Kelly Lecture on HIV and AIDS’, with the theme of “HIV and Women: Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights”, took place. This lecture provided the perfect platform to address this gendered and inequitable epidemic. Professor Father Michael Kelly is a distinguished International HIV and AIDS advocate, contributing over 50 years of his life towards fighting against this global epidemic. Although he could not be present in Ireland for the lecture, the evening included a compelling video message from Father Michael himself.

Father Michael explained that young girls and women are often unable to exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights because of gender-based discrimination. In agreement, during the panel discussion, Dr Joannie Marlene related male-dominated power dynamics to women’s high risk of HIV infection. She explained that in some settings, women face a lack of decision-making power in comparison to men. For instance, women’s lack of social autonomy can impede their capacity to negotiate condom use to protect themselves from HIV infection. Gender-based violence rooted in this power inequality also heightens women’s risk of contracting HIV. UNAIDS reports that “more than one third (35%) of women around the world have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some time in their lives” (2019). As a result, women who have experienced this violence in certain regions of the world are 1.5 times more likely to contract HIV (UNAIDS, 2019). Powerlessness, rooted in gender-based discrimination, can thus heighten women’s vulnerability to acquiring HIV.

Father Michael stressed that educating young girls and women is a fundamental factor in lowering their risk of HIV infection. He stated that “a girl’s risk of becoming HIV infected drops substantially the longer she stays in school.” He went on to say that young girls and women, as well as young boys and men, should be educated on both their sexual and reproductive health and human rights. By doing so, education can equip young individuals with the knowledge and resources they need to protect themselves. Father Michael also emphasised that young individuals should be encouraged to exercise their rights, such as having indiscriminate access to sexual health services in their communities.

Father Michael was adamant that HIV and AIDS and the sexual and reproductive health rights of girls and women must be kept high on every country’s agenda. He acknowledged Irish Aid’s significant commitment to working at national and global levels to do so. These efforts include promoting HIV prevention, improving access to treatment and care, and investing in research to help improve the health outcomes of those living with HIV and AIDS.

Despite Ireland’s international efforts, investments must be made into community-led organisations in Ireland to tackle HIV, as proposed by panellist speaker Georgina Caswell, Head of Programmes of the Global Network of People Living with HIV, South Africa. Government bodies need to have a more consistent focus in responding to HIV and adolescent girls and women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. With human rights at the core, continued action must be taken to eradicate gender inequalities that drive the HIV epidemic. Only then can we rightfully say that we are “Leaving No One Behind” in tackling HIV and AIDS.

UNAIDS. (2019). Global HIV & AIDS statistics – 2019 fact sheet. Retrieved December 1: https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet
UN Women. (2016). Facts and Figures: HIV and AIDS. Retrieved December 1: https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/hiv-and-aids/facts-and-figures 



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