‘First Ladies’ Panel Focuses on Children Facing the Disease

During a recent Feast of Mothers event, Haiti’s first lady met pregnant mothers who were HIV-positive and hoped to give birth to children uninfected with the disease. The prognosis for the women and their unborn children are not great, but Sophia Saint Remy Martelly is committed to changing those odds.

“We want to make that hope a reality for everyone,” Martelly said Wednesday during a UNAIDS panel discussion, “so never again any child in Haiti, or anywhere in the world, would be born with HIV.”

(R)First Lady of Democratic Republic of Congo H.E. Mrs. Antoinette Sassou Nguesso share laughs with (L) First Lady of Comoros H.E. Mrs. Hadjira Djoudi during the UN High Level Meeting session. (Photo by Tametria Conner/UNITY AIDSNews)

Martelly was one of almost 30 first spouses who attended “First Ladies for the Elimination of New HIV Infections in Children,” a panel of the 2011 U.N. High Level Meeting. The panel, highlighted by Azeb Mesfin, first lady of Ethiopia; Ban Soon-taek, wife of the U.N. secretary-general; Lok Chumteav Dr Bun Rany Hun Sen, first lady of Cambodia; and Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS. The panel was moderated by Sudanese journalist Zeinab Badawi and focused on new HIV infections in children and sharing strategies for concrete solutions, particularly in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

“We cannot accept having 400,000 babies born every year with HIV in the developing world when it’s not happening anymore in the developed world,” Sidibé said.

In addition to expressing their support for general directives developed around increasing HIV treatment, care and support for women living with HIV and their families, several first ladies also shared new initiatives they were implementing in their countries.

Sylvia Bongo Ondima, first lady of Gabon, has set up a foundation on child and maternal health that offers free care to HIV-positive mothers and their children. Vivian Wade, first lady of Senegal, stressed the vitality of securing the participation of men in the campaign to prevent transmission from mother to child, as did the first lady of Malawi, Callista Mutharika, who added the importance of high political will, commitment and leadership.

In Morocco, Princess Lalla Salma proposed involving religious leaders to battle the taboo of HIV infection and stressed the importance of treating it as a health issue and not a moral judgment. The first lady of Cambodia, Lok Chumteav Dr Bun Rany Hun Sen, a nurse by training, discussed the epidemic shifting toward women who are considered low risk and she advocated a family centered and social approach that includes treating infected partners.

“We must not forget that every statistic is a human face,” she said.

Women’s issues were also in the spotlight Tuesday at the United Nations, a day ahead of the opening of the High Level Meeting on AIDS.

“I think that we are living in a man’s world,” said HIV positive activist Frika Chai at the HIV Priorities for Positive Change Conference.

She said governments limit their budgets when it comes to tackling the AIDS pandemic and addressing women as part of the solution. “It makes us feel that we don’t have the decision making power,” she added.

Last year, UNAIDS launched a five-year action plan called Agenda for Accelerated Country Action for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV. It consists of providing guidance to UN local agencies in countries members so they make a strong commitment to the eradication of AIDS, while responding efficiently and protecting the rights of girls and women. UNAIDS recognizes that current HIV programs and policies do not sufficiently tackle the needs and realities of this sector failing to protect human rights.

Jantine Jacobi, head of the UNAIDS Gender and AIDS Team, believes that women’s empowerment through education and leadership workshops could make a difference.

“After 30 years, unfortunately, the epidemic is largely the face of a woman,” said Michel Sibidé, the UNAIDS executive director. “We will never succeed in achieving zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and even zero stigma and discrimination, when women living with HIV are coerced into sterilization and abortion, or in a world where women cannot negotiate safe sex [and] a world where rape is not treated as a crime.”


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