People's Stories Women's Rights

Every three minutes a teenage girl is infected by HIV
by UN AIDS, UNICEF, agencies
July 2018
Around 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV and around 50 countries experienced a rise in new HIV infections during last year, according to Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, who was speaking at the ongoing International AIDS Conference in the Netherlands.
“Health is a human rights imperative and we are deeply concerned about the lack of political commitment and the failure to invest in proven HIV programmes, particularly for young people and key populations,” said the UNAIDS chief.
UNAIDS stressed that women and youth need targeted approaches as they are often more vulnerable and, therefore, more at risk of exposure.
Around 30 teenagers aged 15 to 19 were newly infected with HIV per hour in 2017, according to a new UNICEF report. Of these, two-thirds were girls. Every week 7000 young women (aged 15–24) acquire HIV.
“This is a crisis of health as well as a crisis of agency,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “In most countries, women and girls lack access to information, to services, or even just the power to say no to unsafe sex. HIV thrives among the most vulnerable and marginalized, leaving teenage girls at the centre of the crisis.”
Women: At the heart of the HIV response for children offers sobering statistics on the continuing global AIDS epidemic and its impact on the most vulnerable. Last year, 130,000 children and adolescents 19 and under died from AIDS, while 430,000 – almost 50 an hour – were newly infected.
Presented at the International AIDS Conference, the report says that adolescents continue to bear the brunt of the epidemic and that failure to reach them is slowing down the progress the world has made in the last two decades in tackling the AIDS epidemic. The report notes that:
Adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 account for almost two thirds of the 3 million 0-19 year-olds living with HIV.
Even while deaths for all other age groups, including adults, have been decreasing since 2010, deaths among older adolescents (15-19) have seen no reduction.
Some 1.2 million 15-19 year-olds were living with HIV in 2017 – 3 out of 5 of them girls.
The epidemic’s spread among adolescent girls is being fuelled by early sex, including with older males, forced sex, powerlessness in negotiating around sex, poverty and lack of access to confidential counselling and testing services.
“We need to make girls and women secure enough economically that they don’t have to turn to sex work. We need to make sure they have the right information about how HIV is transmitted and how to protect themselves,” said Angelique Kidjo, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, in an essay featured in the report.
“And, of course, we need to make sure they have access to any services or medicines they need to keep healthy. Above all, we need to foster girls’ and women’s empowerment – and education is again often the best route to that.”
To help curb the spread of the epidemic, UNICEF – working closely with UNAIDS and other partners – launched a number of initiatives including:
“All In to End Adolescent AIDS”, which aims to reach adolescents in 25 priority countries home to the world’s highest number of adolescents living with HIV.
“Start Free, Stay Free, AIDS Free”, a framework aimed at reducing the number of new HIV infections among adolescents and young women to less than 100,000 by 2020.
The HIV Prevention 2020 Road Map, an action plan to speed up HIV prevention by focusing on structural barriers – like punitive laws and lack of adequate services – and highlights the role of communities.
These initiatives, and others before them, have led to significant success in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, according to the report. The number of new infections among children aged 0-4 dropped by one third between 2010 and 2017. Now 4 out of 5 pregnant women living with HIV are accessing treatment to keep them healthy and reduce the risk of transmission to their babies.
For example, in the Southern Africa region, long the epicentre of the AIDS crisis, Botswana and South Africa now have rates of mother to child transmission of only 5 per cent, and over 90 per cent of women with HIV are on effective HIV treatment regimens. Close to 100 per cent of pregnant women in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia know their HIV status.
“Women are the most affected by this epidemic – both in the number of infections and as chief caregivers for those with the disease – and should continue to be at the forefront of the fight against it,” Fore said. “The fight is far from over.”
* Advancing global health and strengthening the HIV response in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals: the International AIDS Society-Lancet Commission:

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Life after loss: Rights, dignity and justice for widows
by UN Women, Reuters, Loomba Foundation
June 2018
International Widows’ Day: Life after loss: Rights, dignity and justice for widows
The loss of a partner is devastating. For many women, that loss is magnified by a long-term struggle for basic needs, their human rights and dignity. They may be denied inheritance rights to the piece of land that they relied on for livelihood or evicted from their homes, forced into unwanted marriages or traumatizing widowhood rituals. They are stigmatized for life, shunned and shamed. And, many of these abuses go unnoticed, even normalized.
Right now, there are an estimated 258 million widows around the world, and nearly one in ten live in extreme poverty. As women, they have specific needs, but their voices and experiences are often absent from policies that impact their survival.
The United Nations observes 23 June as International Widows Day, to draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows and to galvanize the unique support that they need.
Today we bring you the voices of some widows we have worked with, as they push through the barriers in pursuit of a life with dignity, joy and aspirations.
International Widows’ Day, by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women
In many countries around the world, a woman who learns that she has lost her husband knows that the years ahead of her will involve two struggles: in addition to overcoming her grief, she has to provide for herself and her family while surmounting enormous social and economic challenges.
Rama Shahi from Dharmasthali, Nepal knows this all too well. In 2015, Rama lost her husband in the Nepal earthquake. Following her husband’s death, his family insisted that they inherit his property, denying Rama her legal rights to remain in her home. Because she had no access to legal support, Rama had to start again from scratch at age 46.
On the occasion of International Widows’ Day, we must consider both the vital role widows play in our society, the ways in which gender inequality impacts their ability to thrive on their own, and the specific recognition and attention that they need from all of us. Of the 258 million widows worldwide, at least one in ten live in extremely poor households. Where social and legal protection systems discriminate against women, widowed women’s lifetime earnings and savings are restricted.
Women are less likely than men to receive a pension in old age, and even in countries with good pension coverage, women are significantly more likely to suffer poverty in old age than men.
In one in five countries with available data, female surviving spouses like Rama Shahi do not have the same inheritance rights as their male counterparts. Yet even where the laws are responsive to women’s rights, there is often greater effort needed to ensure that women know their rights and are able to enforce them.
When widows with young children lose property, income and other assets—especially in the absence of support for unpaid care work; they may be forced to take their daughters out of school to work or help take care of siblings and housework. This is how gender inequality perpetuates itself, continuing the cycle of disadvantage for girls and women for decades to come.
It isn’t just middle-aged or older women who struggle. Widowed women are represented across the age spectrum, for example, as a result of the high male mortality rates in countries in conflict, or where there are high rates of child marriage.
To protect and empower women like Rama, it is important that governments address barriers to information, and to justice. In addition to laws that discriminate against widowed women, in many countries they face marginalization as a result of social stigma, which means that legal changes must be accompanied by plans to tackle the norms that have long justified discriminatory practices.
Women must have access to legal aid and support, and their political, community and religious leaders must be included in reform processes.
On this International Widows’ Day, let us remember that widows are heroes, working hard to keep families, communities, and societies together following the loss of their spouses. As societies we owe it to the widows of the world to give them the respect, visibility and unique support they need.
June 2018
Abused and destitute: Wars fuel rise in global number of widows, by Emma Batha. (Reuters)
Millions of widows worldwide suffer crushing poverty and persecution, their numbers swelled by a proliferation of conflicts from Syria to Myanmar. International Widows'' Day on June 23 aims to raise awareness of the often hidden injustices they face.
Many are robbed of their inheritance, while others are enslaved by in-laws, accused of witchcraft or forced into abusive sexual rituals.
Here are some facts:
Experts estimated there were 258.5 million widows globally in 2015, but say the number is likely to have risen. Deaths through conflict and disease contributed to a 9 percent increase in the number of widows between 2010 and 2015.
The biggest jump has been in the Middle East and North Africa, where the estimated number of widows rose 24 percent between 2010 and 2015, partly due to the Syrian war and other conflicts.
One in seven widows globally lives in extreme poverty. One in 10 women of marital age is widowed. The proportion is about one in five in Afghanistan and Ukraine.
A third of widows worldwide live in India or China. India, with an estimated 46 million widows in 2015, has overtaken China (44.6 million) to become the country with the largest number of widows.
Widow "cleansing" rituals in some sub-Saharan countries may require a widow to drink the water used to wash her dead husband''s body or to have sex with an in-law, village "cleanser" or stranger. Campaigners for widows'' rights say such rituals, which are intended to rid a widow of her husband''s spirit, spread disease and are a violation of dignity.
Widows are regularly accused of killing their husbands either deliberately or through neglect - including by transmitting HIV/AIDS - in India, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa.
Property seizures and evictions by the late husband''s family are widespread in many places including Angola, Bangladesh, Botswana, India, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
A significant number of girls are widowed in childhood - a reflection of the prevalence of child marriage in developing countries and the custom of marrying off young girls to much older men.
June 2018
We must end the world''s cruelty towards widows, by Raj Loomba.
When my mother was widowed at the age of 37 following my father’s death from tuberculosis her grief was compounded by a cruel social stigma that she endured her whole life.
That was many decades ago, but India’s 46 million widows still face a myriad of injustices, often rooted in a belief that they bring bad luck because of their perceived link with the hereafter.
This weekend, on June 23, the anniversary of my mother’s widowhood, I will be attending a ceremony in India to mark International Widows Day - a time for reflecting on some of the world’s most marginalised women and highlighting the hidden abuses inflicted on them.
The discrimination faced by my mother was most acutely symbolised during my own wedding when the priest asked her not to stand near us lest she bring bad luck.
This was a turning point for me. How could a woman who had always cared for me and wished me well bring me bad luck? I had had enough of this socially prescribed misery heaped among personal tragedy and decided to turn my dismay into action.
I eventually helped to set up a charity which raises funds to educate the children of poor widows in India and empower widows across south Asia and Africa and which advocates for change.
Widows face a multitude of abuses, often arising from cultural and religious beliefs and linked to extreme poverty.
Many are robbed of their inheritance, some are treated as servants by their in-laws, others lose their children or are married off to their late husband’s brother.
In certain communities in Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and elsewhere some widows undergo degrading sexual rituals - called “widow cleansing” - in which they are made to have sex with a village “cleanser” or a relative of their late husband in the belief this exorcises his spirit. This practice has been documented as a factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS.
In parts of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East widows may be forced to marry their deceased husband’s brother.
In other places, including countries as disparate as India, Nigeria, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea, widows are accused of witchcraft and banished from communities or killed. Older widows are particularly at risk of such accusations.
In 2015, the World Widows Report - the most comprehensive study of widowhood to date - estimated there were more than 258 million widows globally. With so many conflicts raging, it’s likely this number will have risen.
Women left widowed by violence in Syria, Iraq and Myanmar continue to be abused in different ways. There are reports of Syrian women having to resort to sex work. Young widows are also at risk of falling prey to traffickers and forced into prostitution.
Closer to home, I wonder about the fate of widows in Greece after the destruction of the Greek economy. The UK’s dramatic slashing of bereavement benefits is also an unwelcome development.
But widows are not the only ones to suffer. Many of these women are mothers with young daughters, and the deprivations inflicted on them also impact the next generation of girls. Impoverishment, or the fear of poverty, often leads widows to favour their sons over daughters and may spur them to marry off their daughters early. All this has implications for the Sustainable Development Goals.
I believe the injustices suffered by widows often derive from a lack of empathy – both at a grassroots and institutional level. Institutions and their bureaucracies are often notoriously poor at empathy, especially when resources become scare. The world must rediscover its empathy, and convert it into action.
* World Widows Report 2015 (270pp):

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