Photo: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Despite the gains made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, 5 700 people are still being infected daily, and millions still need treatment, writes Azad Essa.

Last week UNAIDS released its annual report detailing the gains made in addressing the pandemic. And there is a lot to appreciate.

More people are on treatment than ever before. That is some 18 million people on life-saving treatment. As a result, millions of people with HIV are now living longer lives. Overall, new infections are on the wane. And when it comes to accountability and shared responsibility, low and medium income countries are investing more than ever before into solutions.

But not so fast. Despite the gains, around one million people still died from AIDS-related diseases last year. Another 18 million still need treatment. More importantly, an estimated 5700 people were newly infected with the virus every day throughout 2015.

For all its efforts to showcase the work been done to tackle HIV, the UNAIDS report, released on the eve of International AIDS day on December 1, carried a serious message: girls and young women were still being disproportionately impacted by the virus and serious action needed to be taken.

Data showed that at the end of every week in 2015, some 7500 women and girls between ages 15-24 were newly infected by HIV. The bulk of these took place in our backyard: southern Africa. Overall, the number of new HIV infections among women across the globe of the same age bracket had reduced by just six percent since 2010.

The numbers are hard to understand, difficult to relate to. But we all know what they mean.

“Women’s and girls’ heightened vulnerability to HIV goes far beyond physiology: it is intricately linked to entrenched gender inequalities, harmful gender norms, and structures of patriarchy that limit women and girls from reaching their full potential and leave them vulnerable to HIV,” the report noted.

Indeed, there may be more scientific know-how to fight HIV today than ever before, but this purported advantage still struggles to make an impact in a world still overwhelmingly misogynistic.

“No one should misunderstand the truth, that gender equality and the struggle for equality remains the most important issue on the planet,” Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS to Africa, said in a statement over the weekend. And he is right.

The continued impact on young girls and women should come as no surprise. It is merely an extension of how men exert power women on a daily basis.

In one study cited in the report, just 50% of South African women surveyed between the ages 15-24 reported using a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse with a non-cohabitating partner. Another study conducted in KwaZulu-Natal found that only 26% of men surveyed were aware of their HIV status, only 5% were on treatment, and their viral loads were extremely high. In other words, unprotected sex would almost certainly result in HIV infection. Another set of data cited by the report, found that even when treatment was readily available, men were still less likely to take it, compared to women.

All these years later, the core issue remains eerily familiar.

It is men, often older men who play “sugardaddies” and “blessers” in desperate economic contexts that remain the biggest stumbling blocks to ending AIDS. It is the same lot who refuse to use condoms, avoid being tested while continuing to engage in risky behaviour; a mix of toxic masculinity, medical illiteracy and lunacy.

The story of HIV is peppered with anecdotal evidence of how patriarchy has long been a central pillar in the spread of the virus. For instance, in 2004, the Tanzanian Media Women’s Association (TAMWA), said that until or unless authorities or communities address the stigmatisation of women with HIV, all efforts would be in vain.

“Men don’t want to be associated with HIV so they blame women, despite the fact that many of the infections are brought into marriages by philandering men,” the association said.

Likewise, at the opening ceremony of the AIDS conference in Durban earlier this year, actor Charlize Theron brought doctors, activists to their feet, when she argued that AIDS continued to kill because “we value some lives more than others”.

“It’s the culture that condones rape and shames victims into silence. It’s the cycle of poverty and violence that traps girls into teen marriages and forces them to sell their bodies to provide for their families,” Theron said.

Slowing or preventing new infections means reimagining empowerment. Girls have to stay in schools, so they might have the tools to make the best choices for themselves. Boys need to be introduced to behaving responsibly, not as media throwaways but through compulsory school subjects. It also means making sure that violence against women is not tolerated, that precedents are set, and justice is not uneven. It also requires us to report abuse and demand convictions when it comes to sexual assault and rape.

It is all linked, related in one form or another. And it always has been.

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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