While attending the 53rd
session of the Commission on the Status of Women, I was eager to attend
the side event co-hosted by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and
the U.S President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
The standing-room only session, was entitled "Integrating Gender into
Locally-Owned HIV/AIDS Response."
Although the panel moderator,
Lynn Collins, a technical advisor with the United Nations Population
Fund, framed the session by saying that gender goes beyond women, including
outreach to specific populations such as commercial sex workers and
men who have sex with men, the subsequent discussion revolved predominantly
around women and girls. All four of the presenters brought unique
and insightful comments to the issue, representing the global, the faith-based,
and the local.
Michele Moloney-Kitts, Assistant
Global AIDS Coordinator, explained PEPFAR’s five strategies for gender
inclusivity, including reducing violence and coercion against women
and addressing male norms and behaviors that may worsen the epidemic.
Moloney-Kitts indicated that the future approach to PEPFAR-funded programming
might rely more heavily on effectiveness data rather than simply following
what program implementers gut feelings or value judgments about the
programs. While the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator has
always promoted the idea that it supports "evidence based" interventions,
this idea seems a small nod towards what the reality has actually been.
The next panelist, Jacqueline
Ogega, director of the women-mobilization program of Religions for Peace,
drew on her experience building PEPFAR-funded "women of faith" groups
in Tanzania and Ethiopia. She pointed to these communities of
faith as important constituencies given that they have historically
regarded HIV and AIDS as resulting from "sinful behavior."
She went on to explain that women are carrying a disproportionate share
of the burden in the fight against HIV/AIDS, often volunteering without
compensation. She discussed how some of PEPFAR’s structural
requirements, such as the intense financial reporting and record-keeping
relating to "targets reached," are not workable for many locally
based organizations. As a result, they cannot directly access
and benefit from PEPFAR’s resources. In addition to the obstacles
to local organizations, she went on to describe the difficulty of adhering
to quantitative prevention indicators within a specified reporting cycle
to measure qualitative factors, such as the empowerment of a woman or
girl. Such results often take shape over a longer period of time
than an ordinary funding cycle.
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The final panelist was Faith
Meitiaki, a dynamic youth representative with Anglican Women’s Empowerment-Anglican
Consultative Council in Kenya, who captivated the room. Ms. Meitiaki
stressed the importance of "going local" in determining appropriate
strategies for responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, by recognizing individual,
regional, and cultural diversities. Meitiaki’s comments rang
with truth and authority as she herself had escaped from attempted female
circumcision to pursue an education. She also emphasized that
prevention messages needed to provide options aside from just abstinence,
asking "if they can’t abstain, what should they do? Die of AIDS?"
While there was an awkward
moment, when Botswana’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations,
Ambassador Charles Thembani Ntwaagae, explained that he looked to his
colleagues for examples on sound approaches to working with commercial
sex workers because of the "legal, cultural ethical, religious questions"
in his country regarding this population, the session seemed full of
smart, capable people who "get" the issue. Overall, the panelists
identified many areas about gender inclusivity in need of attention
and further development, and shared best practices and lessons learned.
Perhaps by this time next year we’ll be able to talk about fewer challenges
we are facing and more progress we have made.