Women the world over have made enormous progress in obtaining the right to lead their lives as they choose. IAVI applauds that progress and lends its unequivocal support to the continuing struggle to ensure equal rights and protections for all women, everywhere.
Addressing the HIV epidemic among women is a big part of that struggle. More than 60 million people have been infected with HIV in the 32 years since AIDS was first identified as a disease, and some 32 million have lost their lives to the infection. Women account for a disproportionate part of that toll. According to the World Health Organization, AIDS-related complications are one of the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age—a phenomenon fueled by the epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, which has been hit hardest by the pandemic. UNAIDS says that in some countries of the region HIV prevalence rates among women between the ages of 15 and 24 are twice as high as among their male peers.
Ending such disparities is essential to both the global campaign against HIV and the broader effort to improve the lot of women—not only their health, but their economic prospects and those of their families. Any such effort depends on providing women greater access to family planning and maternal health services, addressing gender inequalities, combating gender-based violence, promoting the use of existing HIV prevention methods (including female condoms), and the expansion of treatment and care for those infected with HIV. But it also requires a sustained commitment to the development of HIV prevention tools that meet the complex and varied needs of women—particularly tools such as vaccines and microbicides.
Girls and women are at heightened risk of HIV infection due to the complex interplay of their biology and the entrenched gender inequalities that curtail their ability to negotiate the terms of sexual relations and condom use. Effective vaccines and microbicides would empower women to protect themselves from HIV with tools they could use discreetly, without the need for negotiation with their sexual partners. Vaccines, in particular, would have the added advantage of providing lasting protection from HIV. They could provide a layer of vital protection for women who, prior to sex, find themselves unable to take steps to prevent infection, and support the reproductive health rights of women by alleviating some of the risk of HIV acquisition for those who wish to become mothers.
Aware of the urgent need to address the HIV epidemic, countless women the world over have offered up their time, expertise and bodies to the development of new tools to prevent HIV. On this International Women’s Day, IAVI honors the dedication of those women scientists, the courage and resourcefulness of the advocates among them, and the altruism and faith of the thousands who volunteer in the clinical research essential to the development of such tools. Their efforts will not be in vain.
In support of these women, we call for greater political leadership and continued support for the development of new biomedical strategies, such as vaccines, to prevent HIV. Offering women more choices and more control over how they protect themselves from HIV will support efforts to ensure the gender equity that is so essential to improving women’s lives