AIDS is spreading "dramatically and disproportionately" among women in Africa - the very people poised to help prevent famine and promote development on the continent, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today.
"Women make up 50 per cent of the global AIDS epidemic - and in Africa that figure is now 58 per cent," the Secretary-General said in an address upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town at a ceremony held at Columbia University in New York. "Today, AIDS has a woman's face."
In addition to causing "untold suffering" by killing almost two and a half million Africans this year alone, AIDS is now depriving African countries "of their capacity to resist famine, by weakening exactly those mechanisms that enable populations to fight back - the coping mechanisms provided by women."
Specifically, the Secretary-General pointed to the spectre of widespread famine in Africa and recalled the traditional role played by women in helping families to avert hunger. "But today, as AIDS is eroding the strength of Africa's women, it is eroding the skills, experience and networks that kept their families and communities going," he warned.
Even before falling ill, a woman will often have to care for a sick husband, and when he dies, she often finds herself deprived of credit, distribution networks or land rights, Mr. Annan said. "When she becomes ill, with her immune system compromised, battling through the pangs of hunger is no longer an option. She will fall sick and will be unable to work and care for her children."
The woman's death forces her family to take the children, especially girls, out of school. "They will lack their mothers' skills to keep the family livelihood going," the Secretary-General said. "And at the same time - in the cruellest form of double burden - these girls, deprived of an education, and of the confidence an education brings, will be even less able to protect themselves against AIDS."
In order to break this cycle, the Secretary-General called for a "comprehensive international effort" centred on women. "In Africa, it is women who keep life going," he said. "And it is why, if we want to save Africa, we must save Africa's women first."