Beatrice Were: 'Women need education to fight this epidemic'

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The Independent Online

In 1991, my husband Francis died of Aids. Four months later I was diagnosed with HIV and my life changed for ever. Francis knew he was positive but had not told me. Like most Ugandan men, he wanted a "pure" wife, and he got one, for all the good it did me.

I had abstained and remained faithful, but it was meaningless. And so I was left at 22, widowed with two baby daughters.

My personal story is typical of the way most African women contract HIV. In Africa, 60 per cent of new infections are in women; many of them are married.

Fifteen years on, I am a long-term survivor. But I know that I am lucky. As a trained social worker I understand how systems work. Anti-retroviral drugs supplied by my employer, ActionAid, keep me alive.

Aids is not just an illness of the body. It is an illness of society. On the journey from healthy family woman to HIV-positive single mother, the obstacles are varied. Like many women, I had to fight a system where I was supposed to marry my husband's brother, and where my property was claimed by his family.

Once, Uganda was heralded for stemming the rise in its HIV infections. Now, the UN's latest figures show, this is no longer true. The response of the Ugandan government has shifted from pragmatic to moralistic and, as UNAids showed last week, HIV prevalence in women has grown by 2 per cent and in rural hot spots by 25 per cent.

It wasn't that long ago that the Ugandan approach was the "ABC" model - abstinence, being faithful, using a condom. The three-step policy, while far from perfect, was at least realistic in promoting the use of condoms which used to be advertised all over Uganda.

Now, under the influence of US donors, often driven by the evangelical right, billboards have been replaced by marches of virgins, and proposals for university scholarships for those who remain "untainted". A new wave of stigma has overtaken the country; people who are living with HIV are defined as "loose". Civil society has become divided in the scramble for US grants.

America's Aids funding for Africa is undoubtedly generous. It amounts to $15bn over five years. But its prevention approach, mainly restricting condom distribution to so-called "high risk" groups such as sex workers and truck drivers, ignores the reality of the African epidemic, which is young and female.

We know that girls and young women who stay in education are much less likely to contract the disease. They are more likely to stand up for their rights, including their right not to have sex. They are less likely to have sex for money, and crucially they are more likely to use a condom.

Assuming it has taken you six minutes to read this, 72 people will have died from Aids around the world and 85 will become infected. The response from African governments and the international community must be injected with a dose of realism. G8 countries have promised to fund treatment for those who need it - but no plans are in place.

Beatrice Were runs ActionAid's programmes in Uganda, and is a world renowned Aids activist. To find out more go to www.actionaid.org.uk

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