Advisor on Gender and HIV/AIDS for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)
Stephanie Urdang delivered a lecture at the WWS on December 3, 2003, entitled, Who Cares? Women Infected and Affected in the Era of HIV/AIDS.
Stephanie Urdang is the Advisor on Gender and HIV/AIDS for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). She has worked on mainstreaming gender into development policy and practice in the UN system for many years. She developed and managed a training program on gender and development for UNDP. Born in South Africa, she has worked as a journalist and she has published widely on women in Africa. She is the author of "And Still They Dance: Women, War and the Struggle for Change in Mozambique" (1989).
"While HIV/AIDS is a health issue, the epidemic is a gender issue. Statistics prove that both the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS is not random. It disproportionately affects women and adolescent girls who are socially, culturally, biologically and economically more vulnerable. Women's empowerment is one of the only AIDS vaccines available today." - UNIFEM
HIV/AIDS and Women: Infected and Affected
Throughout the world, women commonly do not have the power to refuse unwanted sex or to negotiate safe sex.
Married women are not shielded from the virus. Many women are infected by their husbands who have had extramarital affairs. The husbands often refuse to get tested for HIV, and deny any infidelity. Even when the woman knows that her husband may have HIV, she may not be able to negotiate using condoms or refuse to have sex with him. In some cultures in Africa it is customary for widows to be married off to her deceased husband's brother. "In many cases, the husband will have died of HIV/AIDS and she might be infected and will infect his brother," Urdang said. "When a husband dies, the woman loses the right to that land or even the house that sits on it. The land and property are taken over by the husband's family. The wife and her children are left destitute. Making matters worse, if the deceased husband was HIV positive, the pregnant wife is often the first person in the family to be tested, because she will go to a clinic. She is often seen as the cause of the disease." The stigma and discrimination intensify the precarious condition that HIV+ widows face.
In Africa, women are bearing the burden of care for HIV+ family members. This increased responsibility adds physical and emotional strain on women who already disproportionately tend to household chores. Care for one HIV+ person with full blown AIDS requires approximately 24 buckets of water-for hydration, medication, body washing and washing of soiled clothing, hygiene from vomit and diarrhea. Wells to retrieve water can be as far as 20 minutes away on foot.
At a UNIFEM workshop in Capetown, South Africa, a couple of years ago, women gathered to describe the burden of HIV/AIDS and to articulate their needs. They expressed the need to change traditional roles between partners to alleviate the burden of care. Many women care for their women friends who are dying and are asking where the men are in coping with this problem. Urdang sees the need to promote policies to protect women because of their primary role in caretaking. "Access to anti-retroviral therapy will in turn render women healthier and would give them a chance to take care of their families better. It will also have a direct impact on the labor they're performing in the households," she said. But many governments lack the funds to do so. Even so, according to Urdang, there must be "visibility and understanding of what HIV is doing to women - not just infected but also affected." Although many UN agencies and governments have strong programs on gender budgeting, the next step is to link the gender budgeting process to HIV strategies.
Urdang grew up in South Africa. She was a student and activist when Nelson Mandela was first arrested. "It was very frustrating being a student. Mandela's arrest resulted in huge repression. It was hard to organize. I couldn't see what contribution I could make because of the apartheid situation." So, Urdang left South Africa and headed for the United States where she quickly became involved with an anti-apartheid organization that published a small alternative magazine about apartheid. Urdang started out as both writer and editor of the magazine, which was distributed to journalists, community organizers, churches, trade unions and students.
In 1973 Urdang represented the magazine on a trip through Africa. It was in many ways a personal trip to see the other parts of Africa. The trip led to an invitation to cover the war of independence in Guinea Bissau. Her work there developed into a book on women in the war and the end of the Portuguese colonization.
Urdang was later awarded a Ford Foundation grant to write about women during the war in Mozambique. "It was going to be a chapter but I had so much information that it turned into a book."
In 1990 Urdang started working at the UN. Her six-month assignment as a Gender Trainer at UNDP turned into a much longer stay than she originally planned. After several years, she shifted to UNIFEM five years ago. Her responsibility as a Gender Advisor is to mainstream gender at the UN interagency level and to help program officers think through why gender is an important issue. "Although we conducted many training workshops at UNDP, it was a frustrating experience. There was not much follow-up, not enough commitment from the agencies. It's hard to 'get' mainstreaming. People see gender mainstreaming as an end in itself-- if you get a document that says 'take women into account' or implement a program that promotes women's empowerment. And what we're saying is that it's a process towards gender equality. You can't achieve it until you've achieved equality. You need to focus on the power relations implicit in gender relations and figure out how to rebalance POWER, not numbers," she said.
Balancing Work and Family
Urdang has one daughter, a senior in high school, who she raises with her partner. Work in the UN requires a lot of travel. "My partner is very involved. He really took over when I was gone. It's interesting in the UN because, when I first arrived, women had rarely gotten to the top. There were many program officers, but there were very few women in the D1 and D2 level. The UN conducted specific leadership programs to get mid-career women, but still found that women were leaving--mainly because of the extensive travel commitments and country office assignments. If you see this as a long-term career, it means being accompanied by your husband and children, and it is often difficult for him to find a job. Now there are a lot of women in position of D1 and D2, but a high proportion are single, divorced, or their children have grown. This is still an issue because of the caring and reproductive roles women play, just as we find in terms of the impact of AIDS on the household."
Most Rewarding Experiences
"What I find that really inspires me are the amazing women who I've met who are [HIV] positive; activists who are really trying to change the world. Working in HIV/AIDS, the stats come over in my desk and there's a certain distance. It's words on paper on my desk in New York. But then you meet these women-there are strong and remarkable women who have overcome a lot. A lot of the women who are HIV positive activist women-they were kicked out of their homes, because they were accused of bringing the disease into the home. They were pretty destitute, but they figured out where the services were and became leaders in their communities."
"The gender trainings with UNDP were somewhat disappointing. There wasn't the institutional backing for it. But there is an amazing sense I would get, especially from the men, who were at first skeptical. In Malawi, the government sent officials to the training. There was a man who played devil's advocate the whole time. By the last day he said "This is such common sense. I want to be a gender trainer." Sometimes people just need the exposure, but because of all our attitudes and behavior and socialization it is NOT common sense."
"I conducted a training with the Sudanese in Kenya and it was all men. The training workshop had one day on gender. Everyone was joking about the gender training. The women in Burundi said we have to make this fun but it can't be trivial. We made the gender training very participatory and men got into it. They talked about so many issues. There was an older man in his 70's who was a community figure and leader. He hadn't said a word the entire training and when we talked about gender equality and family roles people protested, 'if we really had gender equality the family would dissolve.' Then the leader finally spoke with tears in his eyes and said, 'I think this is so important. We can't think of reconstructing a new society unless there is gender equality. I now understand how much work my wife did, and now it's too late to thank her. I'm so sad.'
UNIFEM's Work in Gender and HIV/AIDS
[reproduced from the UNIFEM website]
As the only women's fund at the United Nations, UNIFEM is determined to ensure that gender equality does not remain a lofty ideal, but becomes a guiding principle in the fight against HIV/AIDS. UNIFEM is working consistently to promote inter-agency collaboration to address the gender dimensions of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and expanded pilot projects to test innovative approaches for strengthening gender-responsive prevention, treatment and care strategies at the country level.
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