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More focus on women’s health needs and rights at International AIDS Conference


11.08.2010    Some 20,000 researchers, program implementers, advocates and policymakers participated in the recent International AIDS Conference (IAC), held July 18-23 in Vienna, to share research and lessons in the global response to HIV/AIDS. The conference has long been a site where emerging topics in the epidemic are discussed and debated, and this year was no exception. While a great deal of attention was given to programming for sex workers and drug users, a number of sessions also focused on women’s particular needs.

Within the context of the HIV epidemic, women have long been a key focus for interventions, but this has been primarily as victims of abuse or vectors of transmission, such as mothers whose babies are born HIV-positive or commercial sex workers. A number of discussions during the IAC and at satellite events attempted to broaden the scope around women living with HIV, recognizing their experiences as individuals, as well as their particular health needs.

The development of methods to prevent the spread of HIV that could be controlled by women themselves has long been one focus of research and discussion. Women may not be in a position to negotiate that their sex partner be faithful or use male condoms, or they may not have access to female condoms. Furthermore, women may want to prevent HIV, but not pregnancy. Researchers presented promising findings from a clinical trial in South Africa of a vaginal microbicide gel that women hopefully can use to prevent HIV infection.

More work is needed to be sure that the gel is an effective prevention option, but there was excitement about the potential. “For the first time we have seen results for a woman-initiated and controlled HIV prevention option,” Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, said in a statement.

Abortion was the topic of a panel discussion for the first time in the IAC’s official program, in a session that featured Ipas Senior Policy Advisor Maria de Bruyn as one of the speakers. Panel presenters discussed the needs and obstacles women face in making reproductive choices. In her presentation about work with grassroots HIV-positive women and youth in Malawi and Namibia about unwanted pregnancy and abortion, de Bruyn emphasized the need to promote the right of women living with HIV/AIDS to bear children, but noted that at the same time women’s full reproductive rights must be recognized.

Speakers noted that women are more than mothers; they are individuals with particular sexual and reproductive health needs, including neglected opportunistic infections such as reproductive tract infections and cervical cancer. Furthermore, the stigma that surrounds both HIV and abortion can make it difficult for women to get the care they need. For a woman living with HIV facing an unwanted pregnancy, this may mean turning to an unsafe abortion provider.

While women’s sexual and reproductive rights in general have gained increasing attention at the IAC in recent years, abortion in particular has long been a neglected topic. That is why the good attendance at the panel and other sessions on unwanted pregnancy and abortion at the AIDS Conference was so welcome.  “I think people were really happy that this issue was finally put on the conference agenda,” said de Bruyn, adding that she hopes researchers and policymakers will begin addressing this topic more thoroughly so that the issue will also be featured at future conferences.