Women's coalition on HIV/AIDS launched

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi urged a major change in Ethiopians’ sexual behaviour patterns on Wednesday to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He said relying on protective measures like condoms was not enough to stop the spread of HIV, which has already infected around three million people in Ethiopia.

His call marked the launch in the country of one of Africa’s first ever national women’s coalitions aimed at combating the virus. The coalition, made up of tens of thousands of women countrywide, is headed by some of the leading female figures in Ethiopian society.

“We say we are going to create an AIDS-free Ethiopia; we must first stop the spread,” Meles declared at the United Nations Conference Centre in Addis Ababa. “It is clear we have to go a long way to create an AIDS-free Ethiopia,” he added, insisting that responsibility lay with individuals to change their behaviour.

His off-the-cuff remarks broke with many traditions of the country, which is deeply conservative and often reluctant to speak out on sexual issues. It was also one of the few times the Ethiopian premier had spoken publicly on the pandemic.

The women's coalition has been given an initial budget of US$200,000 from the UN Development Programme (UNDP)to “catalyse support” in fighting the virus. “This coalition has the potential to ignite and mobilise all Ethiopian women to take on a greater leadership role in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” UN Resident Coordinator Sam Nyambi said. “That is a true breakthrough in terms of strengthening women’s leadership and breaking the curve of infections.”

President Girma Wolde Giorgis described HIV as a “national emergency” and urged a fundamental change in the way women are treated in society. He said social and traditional phenomena like women’s economic dependency and lack of access to education often hampered real progress in combating HIV.

But culture and tradition are man made, he added, urging a sea change while “rediscovering” values where “women are honoured”. Among the audience were senior dignities from Ethiopian society like Abune Paulos, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, as well as many ambassadors.