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Ending the Dual Epidemics of HIV and Gender-based Violence: A Commemoration of World AIDS Day and the 16 Days of Activism

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
UNAIDS and Together for Girls Event
Washington, DC
November 27, 2012


Good afternoon.

I am so pleased to be here with all of you today, with so many friends and partners who have accomplished so much, as we come together to observe World AIDS Day and the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. A special thanks to Lisa Carty from UNAIDS and Michele Moloney-Kitts from Together for Girls— two of our great collaborators in advancing global health and gender equality.

I’d also like to acknowledge the stellar group of panelists who are with us today, including my colleague Deborah Von Zinkernagel from the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator. I will take the opportunity now to offer my sincere thanks to PEPFAR for its exemplary leadership in focusing on women and girls as a core component of its mandate, and its efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence as a part of our global HIV/AIDS platform —recognizing the link between GBV and HIV infection. I would also like to thank Jim Sherry of George Washington University; the Honorable Ambassador of Mozambique, Amelia Matos Sumbana; Rose Nesbitt of PACAnet; and Nicole Styles of MetroTeen AIDS, for their critical insights and perspectives.

Today’s important event builds on our collective work to highlight the intersections between gender-based violence and HIV, and the accomplishments made over the last few years. It’s important to take stock of studies that have made, as well as challenges we still confront. Indeed, we have much to celebrate. As the new UNAIDS report (released last week) notes, we have seen unprecedented reduction in the rate of new HIV infections. And we’ve seen great strides in advancing the rights of women and girls. Yet, it almost goes without saying, great challenges remain.

As the first U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, I’d like to step back as we come to the end of the first term of the Obama administration and spend a little time discussing the broader importance of advancing the status of women and girls, and the accomplishments of this administration —to give us a clear sense of where we’ve been and where we need to go.

Under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, we have put women at the heart of our foreign policy. Promoting the status of women is not just a moral imperative but a strategic one; it's essential to economic prosperity and to global peace and security. It is, in other words, a strategy for a smarter, more effective foreign policy.

And, we are working to integrate the needs and potential of women and girls throughout development goals —both within and beyond the health sector.

In March, Secretary Clinton announced Policy Guidance on Promoting Gender Equality in our diplomatic efforts around the globe, bringing concerted focus in all of our work to proactively promote gender equality to foster economic growth, peace, health, and development. The Administrator of USAID issued comparable gender guidance.

Through our global health diplomacy and development work we are investing more in the unique health needs of women and girls and we’re working to remove the economic, social, and legal barriers that impede their access to health care services.

We are strengthening health systems to provide integrated services for women and girls; we are working to provide equal access to essential health care services; addressing and responding to gender-based violence; and engaging men and boys as critical supporters for gender equality.

The importance of these efforts is undeniable, especially since the data can be so stark. As all of us here today are too aware, women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of ill health. Globally, AIDS is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age, and women and girls represent 60% of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, gender-based violence affects anywhere from 15 to 70% of women; the WHO reports that one in three women worldwide will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime.

Gender-based violence and HIV is truly a global epidemic and a public health crisis. At the root of such violence is the low status of women and girls. And, we know that women who have experienced violence may be up to three times more likely to contract HIV than those who have not.

In a discussion yesterday in Haiti, in a roundtable on law enforcement efforts to address gender-based violence, a participant broke down and told us her story about what is was like to be a victim of rape, and her lack of access to justice. Moreover, she talked through tears about the fear she faced that she had contracted HIV – the fear that overtook her as she awaited the test results, which fortunately were negative.

Pre-adolescent and adolescent girls face a number of systemic disadvantages; girls' overall vulnerability to HIV is affected by specific kinds of gender-based violence, including child marriage and forced or coerced sex. For adult women, specific vulnerabilities and correlation to HIV risk include forced and coerced sex, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence. In my travels across the globe, this is the number one issue I hear about from women and girls — the violence they face in their daily lives —whether walking to school or in the home or in the midst of conflict.

I remember traveling to Thailand, with then First Lady Hillary Clinton. We visited with a group of young girls, all of whom had been sold into trafficking in Thailand, and all of whom had contracted HIV. The link between gender equality, HIV, and GBV is real. Very unfortunately, these stories are not unusual or extra-ordinary; they are played out all over the world.

It’s both the terrible stories and statistics like these that make the U.S. Government response so critical. This past August, we released the first ever U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally, and an accompanying Presidential Executive Order directing implementation of the strategy. The strategy sets out concrete objectives and actions to marshal the United States’ expertise and capacity to address gender-based violence —acknowledging the need for a multi-sectoral response.

Yet, we certainly cannot do it alone. Partnerships in this arena are vital. Together for Girls is a model example —a partnership that brings together private sector partners such as Becton Dickinson, a range of UN agencies including UNAIDS, and various U.S. Government agencies to address sexual violence against children, particularly girls.

Fostering this kind of partnership across the U.S. Government and private sector stakeholder is a model —and we are excited to see the great progress we’ve made already.

In Haiti, where Together for Girls is finalizing its survey data, and I am confident it will have the same impact as it has already in countries across the globe, such as Swaziland and Tanzania. Michele will speak to this later today. Here we have seen the power of partnerships and the power of statistics and data to fuel action and intervention.

To advance women’s rights, to turn the tide against both HIV and violence, we must engage all partners, especially men and boys, religious leaders, and community organizations. Progress will not be made without their commitment and leadership. I’ve seen firsthand the difference it can make —from Afghanistan to India to Zambia — when they are involved. This is true both here in the U.S. and abroad —and I am grateful we have panelists today to speak to those parallels.

As the theme of today’s event suggests, addressing gender norms and inequities— including GBV ­—is essential to reducing HIV risk and increasing access to HIV prevention, care, and treatment services. In essence, our success in fighting this epidemic is tied to our ability to recognize and respond to the reality of gender disparities.

This is why my office has partnered with PEPFAR on a joint initiative to provide small grants to grassroots organizations to address gender-based violence issues. I am pleased to announce today that we will award 35 grants of up to $100,000 each to local organizations in 28 countries, from Guyana to Ghana, from Pakistan to the Philippines. Under this initiative, programs address a range of GBV issues, such as strengthening legal and judicial systems, reducing stigma, and enhancing prevention efforts —all of which work to address the drivers of both violence and HIV. We need to take what’s working to scale, to ensure high-yield results and work to once and for all end gender-based violence.

We have much progress to make in order to fully close the gender gap in so many arenas— from economic opportunity to women’s participation in peace processes, and certainly to health outcomes. As we look ahead, I urge us to take up this challenge with sustained energy, in partnerships with all sectors and all players. Only then can we begin to see societies free from violence, free from HIV, and free from inequality —so that men, women, boys and girls can all harness their full potential.

I wish you a fruitful discussion today. Thank you.

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