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Press Release
Gender Is Crucial Issue In Fight Against Aids, Says Head of UNAIDS

June 5, 2000

Gender inequality is a fundamental driving force of the AIDS epidemic and therefore must be addressed centrally in responding to the epidemic, according to Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Biological and social factors make women and girls more vulnerable to AIDS than men, especially in adolescence and youth, when in many places HIV infection in young women has been found to be 3-5 times higher than among boys. Violence -- or the threat of violence -- against women increases their vulnerability to HIV and reduces their ability to protect themselves against infection.

"The slow, piecemeal reform we have seen in the past is not sufficient if women's rights and needs are to be taken seriously," said Dr. Piot. "Equity in all fields -- health, education, environment, the economy -- are essential if women are to act to protect themselves when it comes to HIV and AIDS." Dr. Piot was speaking at the UN General Assembly Special Session on the follow-up to the Fourth International Conference on Women.

Central among the issues of the Platform for Action elaborated at the Fourth International Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 are those related to women and poverty, education and training, health violence, the economy, and power and decision-making. These issues also have a major impact on the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Today, women's increased vulnerability to HIV is becoming better understood. Women's economic dependence on men makes women less able to protect themselves, while social norms limit their access to information about sexual matters. At the same time, greater social acceptance of high-risk male sexual behaviour can expose both men and their partners to infection.

"Slowing down the spread of HIV means important changes are needed in relationships between men and women," said Dr. Piot. "Men have a crucial role to play in bringing about this kind of radical change."

That change in men's behaviour can influence the course of the AIDS epidemic is the theme of this year's World AIDS Campaign, launched in March to involve men more fully in preventing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"We must stop seeing men as some kind of problem and begin seeing them as part of the solution," said Dr. Piot. "Working with men to change their behaviour and attitudes has tremendous potential to slow down the epidemic. It will also improve the lives of men themselves, not to mention those of their families."

The World AIDS Campaign challenges harmful concepts of masculinity and contends that changing long-held beliefs and attitudes must be part of any effort to slow down the spread of AIDS. Efforts to raise awareness among men are focusing on how adult men look on risk and sexuality and how boys are socialized to become men.

Men and women should be encouraged to explore their own perceptions of gender roles and to recognize how stereotypes of both masculinity and femininity can be oppressive, Dr. Piot said. He added that AIDS prevention programmes should give greater emphasis to the role of men in health care, and better ways should be found to give men and women the tools they need to communicate and take responsibility for issues of concern to them in preventing HIV/AIDS.

Gender awareness must focus on the needs of both men and women. According to 1999 estimates, by the end of the year 33.6 million men, women and children were living with HIV or AIDS, and 16.3 million had already died from the disease. In 1999 there were 5.6 million new infections worldwide, of which 3.8 million were in sub-Saharan Africa, and 1.3 million in South and Southeast Asia.

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