Emma Thompson: We won't beat Aids until women have basic rights

From a talk given by the actress at a UN press conference on women and Aids
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The Independent Online

Mrs Akinyi's husband died of Aids in 1990. She believes her husband infected her with HIV - he had a history of extra-marital affairs. When he died, her in-laws denied her property inheritance: in her words, "Immediately after the burial I was chased away from home with my children."

Mrs Nyakumabor's husband died of Aids in 1998 and left her HIV-positive with five children. Her in-laws grabbed household items and took over the house and land she had helped pay for. Soon after her husband's death, Mrs Nyakumabor's father-in-law told her to choose an inheritor, and ordered her to be cleansed by having sex with a fisherman. Mrs Nyakumabor refused, causing an uproar. She now struggles to meet her family's needs, and her slum landlord has threatened to evict her because she cannot always pay rent on time.

These women's stories (their names have been changed) are two of the hundreds collected by Human Rights Watch and other organisations documenting the stripping of property rights in the wake of Aids among some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

As long as women and girls are unable to enjoy education, property rights, freedom from violence and economic security, progress on Aids will pass them by. The "ABC" slogan - "abstain, be faithful, use a condom" is the mainstay of many HIV prevention programmes. But where sexual violence is widespread, abstention or condom use is not a realistic option. Across the world, between one fifth and a half of all girls and young women report that their first sexual encounter was forced. Only 11 per cent of women in Zambia believed they had the right to ask a husband to use a condom.

To address Aids effectively, we first have to understand how women are being treated and why. A comprehensive strategy is needed to boost girls' access to education - particularly secondary education, strengthen legal protection for women's property and inheritance rights, eradicate violence against women and girls, and ensure they have fair access to HIV care and prevention services.

The call to empower women is not new, but Aids makes it more urgent. Millions of women around the world already faced a lifetime of hard labour. Aids has turned it into a death sentence.