Gender equality needed in national HIV/AIDS policy

South African lobby group, the Gender Aids Forum (GAF), is calling for a stronger emphasis on addressing gender inequalities in the national HIV/AIDS policy.

"Gender-based power imbalances are not reflected in the national AIDS plan. South Africa is missing a debate about what gender means for the fight against HIV/AIDS," GAF team leader Dawn Cavanagh told PlusNews.

The GAF, a countrywide initiative based in the port city of Durban, plans to pressure South African national and provincial health officials to focus on the sexual rights of women. The group is also calling for female-controlled methods of contraception to be included in the national treatment programme.

According to Sibani Mngadi, a spokesperson for Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, women and children were the "main target group in terms of healthcare services provision" in the country, but he refused to comment directly on GAF's criticism that women's sexual rights and female-controlled contraception had been neglected in the treatment plan.

The organisation has drafted a document containing recommendations on legal guidelines for women's sexual rights and microbicides for the government's new Health Plan, which will be launched in April 2005. Cavanagh said the document was in the process of being endorsed by civil society and key South African women leaders, and would be submitted to the Department of Health early next year.

The pandemic could not be reversed unless government provided the resources needed to ensure women's right to sexual and reproductive health, she noted.

Policy-makers and civil society had to concentrate on women's long-term strategic interests, particularly the elimination of power imbalances with men. "Because patriarchy is so entrenched in our society, many people - men and women - don't even truly believe that gender equality is necessary or possible," Cavanagh remarked.

According to a report by the New York-based NGO, Human Rights Watch, legal and judicial remedies for violations of the rights of women and girls were often "inadequate or nonexistent".

South African law protects the rights of women and supports gender equality on paper, but these laws are poorly enforced. "We have laws to protect women against violence, but we have a big gap in putting them into effect. There needs to be more pressure on the police," Cavanagh said.

She called on the government to provide training and resources to police and judicial officers to facilitate the reporting and prosecution of gender-based violence.

The role of men in promoting gender equality and curbing the spread of the disease was critical, as existing interventions had so far concentrated on women.

Gender was not just about women, but also "about the power-relationships between men and women." Nevertheless, there were challenges in addressing male sexuality in a patriarchal society such as South Africa. "Women can't take away men's power unless men are willing to cooperate," Cavanagh commented.