July 21, 2003
"While visiting countries of sub-Saharan Africa, I hope President Bush spoke with African women infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. ... Simply put, women's unequal status is the central cause of the rapid transmission of AIDS.
"Power imbalances between men and women are why 58 percent of those infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women. ... If there is one vaccine that exists today, it is women's empowerment.
"Based on the United Nations Development Fund for Women's work in Africa, we know that women's inequality fuels the transmission of the virus in multiple overlapping ways.
"First, in many societies, women lack the power in relationships to refuse sex or negotiate protected sex. ... There is a link between violence and the spread of AIDS, particularly in conflict and refugee situations in which women are subjected to untold rapes and sexual assaults.
"Second, poverty and economic dependence severely compromise a woman's capacity to refuse sexual relations that she perceives are dangerous. ... Thus, dealing with this crisis includes providing women with equal access to education, training and employment.
"Third, the poverty facing women in Africa is all the more severe because they have assumed the burden of care. Women are the health care resources for countries constrained by debt and poverty. ...
"What can be done to catalyze change? I recently met with courageous women in South Africa who are members of the Positive Women's Network throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They offer a blueprint for shaping an effective response to the AIDS crisis:
"Certainly an important first step is the small component in the U.S. administration's $15 billion AIDS program to strengthen women's status and alter male attitudes. Many more resources must be tapped to address this challenge."
Heyzer, who is executive director of the UN Development Fund for Women, wrote this article for the Washington Post.