The UNFPA initiative, undertaken in partnership with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and other partners, is part of an unprecedented coordinated response by the United Nations system and non-governmental organizations.
There are indications that the food emergencies now stalking Southern Africa, West Africa and the Horn of Africa could be even more devastating than the famine that killed nearly 1 million Ethiopians in 1984. A statement issued this week by the world's major humanitarian agencies warned that "the compounded impact of HIV/AIDS ... is rapidly eroding the coping strategies used by communities to survive and destroying human capital necessary for recovery from frequent drought and natural disasters."
Food production in several countries, hampered by poor weather and political decisions by some governments, has been further diminished as a result of AIDS. Nutritional requirements for people with AIDS are greater, and the premature deaths of millions have left fewer adults to support the same number of children. To make matters worse, rural food shortages could cause massive numbers of people to flock to cities in search of food; such sudden population movements often lead to an explosion of new HIV infections.
UNFPA is concerned about young women reportedly forced into prostitution to feed themselves and their families, as well as a rise in unprotected sex caused by famine-related displacement.
The Chief of UNFPA's Humanitarian Response Unit, Pamela Delargy, says UN agencies and their partners must address these concerns when designing relief programmes: "Food assistance must include nutrients HIV-infected people need to prevent the onset of AIDS. Family and community programmes must help prevent the exploitation of young people trying to support their families. And national health-care systems need to work hand-in-hand with other ministries to strengthen existing programmes for HIV prevention, support and care."
For over two years, UNFPA has drawn attention to the relationship between HIV/AIDS and other crises and advocated integrating HIV/AIDS considerations in all humanitarian work. Last April, it hosted a workshop on "HIV, Conflict and Emergencies", the first major inter-agency discussion of these linkages.
The first regional working meeting for UNFPA field offices and partners, on Southern Africa, will be held in Capetown, South Africa, from 7 to 11 February. In preparation, UNFPA field offices have been working on assessments of the HIV-food crisis nexus in their respective countries, to contribute to a United Nations-wide regional strategy to be finalized in late February.
The second working meeting - to be held in Conakry, Guinea, in March - will address the crisis in West Africa's coastal region, where the Côte d'Ivoire conflict has caused displacement and massive population movement. This meeting, planned in coordination with UNAIDS, will map out the responsibilities of different humanitarian agencies and NGOs, to ensure there are no gaps or overlaps with regard to HIV prevention, support and care.
The outputs of these two meetings will be used to help anticipate the dynamics of the crisis in the Horn of Africa, for planning of a third working meeting to be held in East Africa this spring. Although HIV infection rates there are lower than in Southern Africa, the combination of drought and AIDS already appears be undermining economic and food security for Ethiopian families.
UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance. Since it became operational in 1969, UNFPA has provided close to $6 billion to developing countries to meet reproductive health needs and support sustainable development issues. The Fund helps ensure that women displaced by natural disasters or armed conflicts have life-saving services such as assisted delivery, and prenatal and post-partum care. It also works to reduce their vulnerability to HIV infection, sexual exploitation and violence.