Special event at the Commission on the Status of Women seeks to accelerate zero-tolerance towards gender-based violence through the AIDS response

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How much progress has the global AIDS response made in ensuring that women and girls live their lives free from violence? What are the next steps needed to strengthen the challenge to gender-based violence and its links to HIV? These critical questions dominated a high level consultation which took place in New York on 9 March during the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Convened by UNAIDS and UN Women, and cosponsored by the Government of Ireland, the UN Development Programme and the UN Population Fund the consultation brought together key civil society activists, United Nations organizations and government representatives.

Co-chaired by Hon Thokozani Khupe, Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and Hon Julia Duncan-Cassell, Minister of Gender and Development of Liberia, the consultation took the priority theme of the CSW: elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls as a springboard to find ways to accelerate the attainment of Millennium Development Goals 3 (promoting gender equality) and 6 (halting HIV). Participants also discussed how to position HIV and gender-based violence on the post-2015 development agenda.

“The post-2015 agenda must be seen as finishing the last mile,” said Thokozani Khupe, Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. “We must see the things that are unfinished and try to tackle them differently,” she added.

Gender based violence is a global epidemic, and it is the most brutal manifestation of gender inequality. According to UNAIDS, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime. In some countries, up to 45% of girls under the age of 15 report their first sexual experience as forced.

“Violence is not inevitable,” said Charlotte Watts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Even if figures are shocking, we should be inspired by them to work and address them.”

Tackling violence against women and girls is key if their vulnerability to the HIV is to be reduced. Women can be forced to have unwanted and unprotected sex and they can face violence if they reveal that they are living with HIV. Research in South Africa has shown that young women subjected to intimate partner violence are 12% more likely to become infected with HIV. Married women in India who experience both physical and sexual violence from their partners are three times more likely to be living with HIV than women not subjected to attacks at all. Cases of coerced sterilizations and abortions undertaken on women living with HIV without their informed consent are widespread and documented in many countries.

Representatives of civil society shared community perspectives of how HIV and gender-based violence are intimately linked. Jennifer Gatsi, from the Namibia Women’s Health Coalition, stressed the negative consequences suffered by women living with HIV.

“The birth of a child is commonly the happiest day in a woman’s life,” said Ms Gatsi. “But in certain countries, the day a child is born from a mother with HIV, is the day when she dies or she starts to face discrimination.”

The consultation discussed the fact that, despite the extent and consequences of gender- based violence and its role in fuelling the HIV epidemic, it too often goes unaddressed and unpunished. It was noted that nothing less than working for social transformation of gender relations, including economic and legal empowerment of women, can bring about the changes needed to help them to stay safe.

According to the UNAIDS Director, Rights, Gender and Community Mobilization, Mariangela Simao, making real strides against gender-based violence is a core goal for effective HIV responses, as reflected in the UNAIDS Strategy 2011-1015.

Lynn Collins, a UNFPA HIV advisor who moderated a panel at the event said, "We at UNFPA have welcomed this opportunity to bring together a range of voices, united in the call to end violence in all its heinous forms through education and other means of empowerment, legal reform and redress, and rights-based sexual and reproductive health and HIV services."

The Commission on the Status of Women, which meets annually, is one of the main global policy-making bodies committed to gender equality and the advancement of women. This year’s meeting is taking place from March 4-15.