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New UN women's agency good news for "feminized" AIDS epidemic

[Kenya] A portrait of the new UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in Soweto village, Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya, 30 January 2007. Ban succeeded Ghanaian Kofi Annan in January 2007. He will lead the UN for the next five years. Ban, 62, has become the first Asia
Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

AIDS activists around the world have welcomed a new UN General Assembly resolution to create a single agency to promote the rights and wellbeing of women, which they say is good news for women, who are bearing the brunt of the global AIDS pandemic.

"This is a historic opportunity to advance the rights of women and girls," said UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé in a statement

Under the new resolution, four UN agencies dealing with women's issues - the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Division for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) - will be merged to form a new, consolidated body headed by an under-secretary general.

Some activists say the move is long overdue, calling the UN's response to women's issues so far a "lamentable failure".

"Thirteen years after UNAIDS was established, and even with the subsequent horrendous toll of the pandemic on women and global recognition of the feminization of AIDS, there is no organization representing women on the committee that steers UNAIDS' work," said a statement by AIDS-Free World, an international NGO that advocates a more effective global response to HIV. "What better example is there of the UN's dismissal of women?"

Women hit hardest

Women make up 60 percent of people living with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, a figure that rises to 75 percent in the 15-24 age range. In Asia, nearly 50 million women are at risk of becoming infected with HIV from their partners.

"We don't see the UN's presence - beyond the policy level - supporting networks on the ground, deep in the villages where women and children affected by HIV have very poor access to health care," Marion Natukunda, project director for the grass-roots Ugandan NGO, Mamas Club, told IRIN/PlusNews.

"We hope the new agency will help with advocacy around women's issues, and will lead to more grass-roots support for HIV-positive women," she added.

AIDS-Free World urged UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reserve a seat for the head of the women's agency on the Committee of Co-sponsoring Organizations that comprise UNAIDS.

"We see this not as an end but a beginning - the UN's first attempt to form a serious gender entity, and the Secretary-General's opportunity to make a monumental change both in the way the UN operates, and in the lives of women everywhere," said Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World and former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.


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