International Women's Day

Geneva Panel discussion: Equitable access to treatment for women

Geneva, Switzerland
8 March 2004

Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be with you for this occasion, and to be on this panel with Joy Phumaphi of WHO, Marika Fahlen of UNAIDS, Ludfine Anyango of ActionAid and Alice Welbourne of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS.

Health is for all, but in many places women have far less access to health information, care and services than men do. This inequality frequently prevents women and girls from obtaining treatment for HIV/AIDS when sick, and from protecting themselves against infection.

It is imperative for us to have policies and strategies that are not only technically sound but can help to overcome this injustice. A first requirement for this is equitable access to information, treatment, care and support. To achieve it, we need to be aware of gender-specific barriers women face. For example: HIV treatment programmes must include components aimed specifically at overcoming gender-related barriers of this kind and challenging the social norms which place women at a disadvantage.

  • Economically, women often cannot buy the health care they need because they do not have control over household resources;
  • Culturally, in some parts of the world, a woman needs to get permission from another household member - such as her husband, her mother-in-law, her brother, and even, in some cases, her son - to avail herself of health services;
  • Socially, women are often more stigmatized than men for being HIV-positive, and suffer more discrimination and more violence within the home because of it, even though it is usually the man who brings HIV home;
  • Logistically, the distance of services from the home, and the times during which they are available, can make them accessible to men but not to women.

Since 1996, the possibilities for HIV prevention have been greatly improved by the availability of antiretroviral treatment. Mother-to-child transmission of HIV can be stopped where this is available through antenatal services. We must accelerate the process of enabling all antenatal services to provide access to this treatment.

We also have to find ways to reach women who are not pregnant, particularly adolescent girls. For this, we must expand our reach by making testing and counselling available through other services that women use, such as primary health care facilities and family planning centres.

From every point of view, making treatment available is crucial. That is the reason for our current initiative to get this treatment to three million people in developing countries by the end of 2005.

The "3 by 5" initiative gives us the opportunity not only to bridge the treatment gap but to overcome gender-based inequities. We will be monitoring "3 by 5" to ensure we are on track to ensure equity as well as coverage.

Let me be clear. If, by the end of 2005, we have brought antiretroviral treatment to many men and few women, "3 by 5" will have failed. We must use this historic opportunity to save the lives of women and girls and to raise their position in society. Let us show, by our use of these precious resources - these medicines - that we know how precious the lives of women and girls are. By doing so, we will be tackling a fundamental weakness, not only in our health systems, but in society itself.

Thank you.