Windhoek-Civil Society Organisations, United Nations agencies and other partners are working with the SADC Parliamentary Forum to hold the first ever Women’s Parliament in Mahe, Seychelles next week from Wednesday to Thursday.
The organisers say the Women’s Parliament will bring together SADC women members of parliament, and their counterparts from other parts of the world, to critically discuss and sustain the engagement of parliaments to implement Resolution 60/2 of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW).
The resolution focuses on women, the girl-child and HIV and Aids, which is still a major grim reaper claiming countless lives.
Through Resolution 60/2, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) calls on governments, international partners and civil society to give full attention to the high levels of new HIV infections among young women and adolescent girls, and their root causes.
As the Report of the United Nations’ Global Commission on HIV and the Law noted almost exactly five years ago, such root causes include a country’s body of laws concerning HIV and Aids.
The evidence indicates that an enabling legal environment, including one that ensures both the legal and practical equality of women and girls, is much more likely to result in lower rates of HIV infection than a punitive one that enshrines historical inequalities.
The SADC Parliamentary Forum is the deliberative body that brings together 14 National Parliaments in the SADC Region to discuss common issues affecting the SADC region as well as to support the regional integration agenda.
Role of Parliaments
Both the global Agenda 2030 and the Africa-focused Agenda 2063 recognise the essential role of parliaments and parliamentarians in achieving sustainable human development, including the achievement of healthy societies.
Through their law-making function, they may repeal harmful laws, and enact appropriate ones. Through their oversight function, they may monitor the implementation by the executive branch of good government public policy.
And via their representative function, they may ensure the voices of the most vulnerable are brought to the table so that no one is left behind.
These are all important reasons that have led the SADC PF to give particular focus and attention to the issue of HIV and Aids at the Women’s Parliament.
Consideration of women and girls in the HIV discourse is a response to the high burden of disease among women and girls in the region and globally. United Nations statistics indicate that 51 per cent of all adults living with HIV globally as of 2015 were women aged 15 years and older. In East and southern Africa, women account for more than half of the total number of people living with HIV.
Represented in actual numbers, the data shows 17.8 million women live with the HIV virus across the globe, of which 900,000 accounted for new HIV infections among adults as of 2015.
The United Nations estimates that an estimated 2.3 million adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 years, are living with HIV, constituting 60 per cent of all young people living with the virus. These statistics indicate the urgency needed by policy makers for countries to benefit from the demographic dividend that HIV and Aids threaten to jinx.
Experts say that men tend to acquire HIV later in life, indicating that most of the infections among adolescent girls and young women could be attributed to intergenerational sex in which the younger sexual partners often have limited power to negotiate safe sex.
Girls’ vulnerability in Southern Africa is further compounded by their low status in a strongly patriarchal society. Against the background of often limited economic opportunities, gender-based violence and discrimination, entrenched gender inequalities, conservative harmful social and cultural norms, stigma and discrimination, produce a vicious cycle of HIV infection among women and adolescent girls.
Dr Esau Chiviya, Secretary General for the SADC PF says the active involvement of members of parliament in general and that of women parliamentarians in particular, can be a game changer as the world responds to the HIV epidemic.
“This Women’s Parliament is therefore being convened to drum up support among parliamentarians towards closing the gaps which leave women and girls vulnerable to HIV,” Chiviya says.
Chiviya adds that although much has been achieved in responding to HIV and Aids at regional and local levels, there is still scope for more to be done. He cites as major milestones increased coverage of antiretroviral treatment, which has enabled more than 18.2 million people globally to access treatment.
“Data shows that in Eastern and Southern Africa 54% (10.3 million people) of all people living with HIV, were accessing antiretroviral therapy in 2015. Access to treatment has contributed to the reduction of AIDS-related deaths from 2.0 million in 2005 to nearly 1.1 million in 2015. This is commendable,” Chiviya says.
He says that thanks to a well-functioning and accessible Prevention of Mother–to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme, more babies born to HIV-positive mothers test negative for the virus.
“Within the SADC Region, there has been a 66 percent decline in new HIV infections among children between 2010 and 2015,” Chiviya says.
Be that as it may, experts and organisers of the upcoming Women’s Parliament recognise that this progress has not reached full scale because of significant inequalities in access to quality services, information and education across and within many countries in the SADC Region and beyond. They say far too many women and adolescent girls continue to fall through the cracks.
The Women’s Parliament is expected to come up with a position paper, and interrogate the UNCSW Resolution 60/2, with a view to giving it much needed traction to close gaps and reduce the vulnerability of women and young girls to HIV.
Over the two days of the Women’s Parliament, delegates will hold discussions around key thematic issues, which include accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for adolescent girls and young women, accessing safe abortion, addressing gender-based violence and addressing the unique needs of women and girls.
Progress made but…
Michaela Clayton the Director of the Aids and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) says that although much has been achieved in responding to HIV, much remains to be done to ensure that no one is left behind.
“Although we are encouraged by the gains made in the HIV response in the region, we are concerned that HIV will not be halted without addressing the HIV-related challenges facing women and girls, including harmful cultural practices and gender-based violence,” she says.
She adds: “We are excited to co-host this Women’s Parliament as it presents a platform for civil society to explore how to work with women parliamentarians to hold governments accountable to their HIV-related commitments and ensure the implementation of Resolution 60/2 by governments in the region.”
ARASA, with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), is one of SADC PF’s key partners in organising this Women’s Parliament. ARASA is a regional partnership of 116 non-governmental organisations working together to promote a human rights approach to HIV and TB in Southern and East Africa.
Enter the elders
Former Heads of State and Government, who are now part of Champions for an HIV-Free Generation, will be among approximately 120 delegates to this Women’s Parliament. They include H.E. Hifikepunye Pohamba, the immediate former Namibian president, who won the world’s most valuable individual award, the Mo Ibrahim prize for African leadership in recognition of good governance and raising the living standards of the population.
Another notable delegate is former Acting President of South Africa, H.E. Kgalema Motlanthe who served as president of South Africa between 2008 and 2009 after President Thabo Mbeki. Motlanthe is applauded for changing the South African Government’s stance on ARVs and rolling out a massive counselling and testing programme, while influencing people to adhere to HIV treatment.
Also attending is Her Excellency Dr. Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe, former Deputy President of Uganda. She is the first woman to hold the position of Deputy President of Uganda and was in this position for nearly 10 years, from 1994 to 2003.
She is respected for her public stance opposing domestic violence against women in Uganda. Her advocacy and influence, spearheaded debate over legislation to outlaw marital rape, ease divorce laws for women, grant property rights to wives and regulate polygamy.
Sweden and Norway fund a four-year SRHR, HIV and Aids Governance Programme that SADC PF is implementing in seven SADC Member States.
UN Agencies that include UNDP, UNFPA, UN Women and SAFAIDS financially support SADC PF and the Regional Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in organising the Women’s Parliament.
UNDP is also providing expert input, including supporting the attendance of panellist Charles Chauvel, a former member of the Parliament of New Zealand, who also served on the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.