Addis Ababa, December 07, 2011 - Recognizing and respecting sexual reproductive rights among women and adolescents was the main message at the plenary session on the third conference day of the 2011 International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA).
Key note speaker, Tewodros Melesse, reminded thousands of attendees that "sexuality is not a western concept" and enjoying rights means "accepting a difference of opinion." In today's Africa, recognizing and upholding human rights-especially woman's reproductive rights and the rights of children and adolescents-continues to be hindered by stigma and discrimination.
Melesse, Director-General of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), shared the story of a homosexual adolescent from Cameroon whose life was shattered by discrimination from the community and his family until he finally found protection from a local HIV/AIDS association. "Having rights does not mean you will not be killed. Having rights means you will be protected," Melesse pointed out.
Another presenter, the young Zimbabwean Annah Sango, gave a speech on "HIV Vulnerability and the Gender Perspective." Over half of the 23 million people living with HIV throughout Africa today are women, and these women represent over 70% of the world's female population living with HIV/AIDS.
"Africa is the only continent with higher female HIV prevalence than male," she explained. "Reasons behind this include disparities in poverty and education among females." African women are also locked into performing certain gender roles and have less decision making power than male counterparts, thus creating oppressive atmosphere of social marginalization.
"Most adolescent sex in Africa is not consensual", and research has now shown new factors that increase a young female's vulnerability to HIV such as alcohol consumption and violent behavior by her partners. The solution of protection and treatment for adolescents and young women will not appear as long as "women are not at the center of the response," Sango said.
On the scientific side of HIV/AIDS, professors David Serwadda from Makerere University and Harvard's Phyllis Kanki, gave presentations about treatment as prevention and the current state of antiretroviral treatment in Africa.
Since the late 1990's, researchers know that when the virus is treated early with ART, transmission rates can be reduced between 30%-90%, according to studies. "But the consistent use of ART is critical to suppress viral loads and thus to the reduction of transmission," according to Serwadda. Adherence is a major issue in antiretroviral-treated Africa.
While ART was out of reach for Africa ten years ago, the prices of the pharmaceuticals have fallen making life-long treatment a real possibility for many. There are currently 5 million people in Africa on ART, and the treatment has decreased mortality.
Africa is still disadvantaged in terms of access to recently designed drugs and low and middle income countries that cannot afford the latest drugs see them. "In Africa, we have a shallow pharmacy and that increases pressure to provide the best treatment with limited choices. At the moment, absolutely no third line choices exist in Africa for people living with HIV," Kanki said.
In addition, ART coverage for African children is lacking, and only Botswana has equal ART coverage above 90% among adults and children. The best way to ensure ART retention is through care, education, family involvement and community support, according to Kanki.