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ATHENA members in action!

ATHENA Network addresses HIV-related discrimination through laws

Since 2004, the Action for West Africa Region-HIV/AIDS (AWARE-HIV/AIDS) Program has spearheaded the development of a "model law" on HIV prevention and control; at least seven West African parliaments have used it to pass laws to date. This model law project represents a signal opportunity for governments in the region to establish a sound legal framework for their HIV response. However, the model law contains elements that clearly violate basic human rights principles, including established United Nations positions on HIV and human rights.

In anticipation of a “Capacity building workshop on human rights and gender in HIV legal frameworks” to be held in Dakar, Senegal, from 16-18 April 2008, a number of civil-society organizations gathered support for a letter addressing the problematic aspects of the model law. As of noon (EST-USA) on 15 April 2008, 56 organizations had signed the letter, including networks of persons living with HIV; sexual and reproductive health organizations; women’s rights groups; treatment access advocates and human rights entities. Signatures were still coming in and the updated signed letter will be posted later on the ATHENA Network website.


Cases of forced sterilization of HIV-positive women being investigated in Namibia

In Namibia, as many as 10 cases of forced sterilization of HIV-positive women could be heading for the courts. The Legal Assistance Centre Aids Law Unit Project will represent the women and is currently ascertaining the details of their cases. Background investigation has been done by the Namibian chapter of ICW.


Ipas Mexico and UNFPA team up to promote youth participation in the Mexico AIDS Conference

As part of the run-up to the International AIDS Conference to be held in August this year, great efforts are being made to encourage young people to participate in the meeting. One contribution to this work occurred from 7-9 February when Ipas Mexico teamed up with UNFPA to offer skills-building training to 40 young Mexican men and women in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala.

The participants, aged 15-26 years, came from states throughout the country, representing NGOs and groups that work with the LGBTI youth and on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The training began with an introduction to the current situation of young people in Mexico regarding youth activism and HIV/AIDS. Then Ipas facilitators from the USA (Maria de Bruyn) and Mexico (Alexis Hernández) offered a three-hour workshop on reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS, in which the young people participated with enthusiasm.

Other training components included overviews of the Global Village, Youth and Cultural Programmes at AIDS 2008, detailed instructions on how to submit abstracts and Global Village activity proposals, a workshop on creating effective poster presentations, and a workshop on targeted communication. Many of the youths indicated their intention to submit abstracts on their work and we hope to see them at the conference and Global Village! Photos of the event can be seen here.


Positive Young Women’s Dialogue in Namibia

A Young Women’s Dialogue brought together 30 young HIV-positive women from the 13 regions of Namibia between 21-25 January 2008. Organized by ICW, the workshop aimed to develop the women’s awareness of their rights and skills to realize those rights through advocacy. On the final day of the workshop, the young women were given a unique opportunity to speak directly to policymakers.

The Dialogue participants called for the following:

  • Research by and for HIV-positive young women on experiences accessing rights and health
  • More information on the specific health issues and rights of young HIV positive women
  • Increased and improved services and policies for
    young HIV-positive women
  • Increased involvement in decision-making processes.

In response to the young women’s questions about improving their political involvement, financial security and universal access to treatment, the MPs present (Honourable Elma Jane Dienda, Hon Christian) and the Deputy Minister of Health (Hon. Petrina Haingura) stated that no-one would be turned away from a health center because of a lack of finances and that patients should be treated with respect. They also encouraged the young women to develop a joint platform and attend regional public hearings to air their concerns.

A direct result of the Dialogue was that Esther Sheehama, one of the young women who attended the workshop, was nominated by the National Council at Parliament to sit in the HIV/AIDS committee of the National Council. She participated in her first meeting in February 2008.


A study of the 2007 Commission on the Status of Women

ATHENA launches mini-documentary “Twin Pandemics” – a study of the 2007 Commission on the Status of Women

Produced by Franziska Kunze and Natalie Rodic, "Twin Pandemics" is a 13-minute advocacy video focused on revealing some of the often unspoken realities surrounding the convergence of HIV/AIDS and violence against women in a global context.

This exploration is focused not only on how one pandemic perpetuates the other, but also on the systemic issues surrounding them both. Created during the 2007 Commission on the Status of Women, featuring interviews with activists and professionals from across Africa as well as India, Bolivia, and the United States, the complexities of the topic are paralleled by practical solutions and recommendations for the future.

This video was made possible by the New School Graduate Program of International Affairs. Directed and edited by: Franziska Kunze and Natalie Rodic; Interviews conducted by: Marzena Szewczyk, Malgorzata Juszczak and Jennifer Zanowiak.



Gender-based violence is a cause and consequence of HIV infection. Accumulating evidence suggests that childhood sexual abuse, coerced sexual initiation, substance use and current partner violence are linked to increased risk-taking behavior that may put women and girls in danger of being infected with HIV. Worldwide, at least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her life and most coerced sex is unprotected sex. The threat of a partner’s violent reaction, whether physical or otherwise, may also prevent women from negotiating safer sex practices, such as condom use. HIV infection also increases women’s susceptibility to violence. Many women do not disclose their HIV status to their partners and families due to a very real and valid fear of assault, rejection, loss of child custody and abandonment. Institutional violence faced by sex workers or rape as a weapon of war are other manifestations.

We are at a watershed moment in the recognition of and response to the twin, overlapping epidemics of gender-based violence and HIV. In particular, there has been an upsurge in attention to the devastating and far-reaching effects of violence against women and its intersection with HIV.
Click here to find resources.


Tackling stigma in Uganda: the Mamas’ Club in action

ATHENA Network Steering Committee member Lydia Mungherera started a support group for HIV-positive mothers of young children. Their testimonies about discrimination at a local hospital helped improve the situation. Read more about the Club.

ATHENA sponsors analysis of abstracts at the 4th IAS Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention

ATHENA argues that since at least half the people living with HIV/AIDS are female, at least half the research conducted, published and presented at international AIDS conferences should be directly related to women and girls. In addition to identifying research priorities that promote best practices in women’s prevention, care/treatment/support, and policy, ATHENA argues that all research studies accepted for presentation at HIV conferences should have information on the number of women in the study sample and perform gender comparison and analysis.

In anticipation of the 4th IAS Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention to be held in Sydney, Australia in July 2007, concern was also expressed that many investigators doing research in women and HIV had abstracts not accepted for presentation at the conference. To investigate this, ATHENA made requests of the International AIDS Society to access the abstract database before the conference. Click here to access the survey results - very enlightening indeed!

ATHENA Network members comment on the ongoing HIV testing debate

ATHENA members have been active individually and in collaboration in commenting on the ongoing debates surrounding voluntary HIV counseling and testing, opt-out HIV testing and provider-initiated HIV testing. Read some of their considerations in this document.

ATHENA at the International Women’s Summit

ATHENA members were well-represented and active at the International Women’s Summit on Women’s Leadership and HIV organized by the World YWCA and ICW. Shari Margolese and Tyler Crone organized an interesting program at the Women’s Networking Zone. Some of the best attended sessions were:

  • A leadership dialogue with Musimbi Kanyoro
  • An Introduction to PulseWire (a new website) with Anne-Christine D’Adesky
  • Female condoms and more: expanding female-initiated prevention methods – a session led by CHANGE and Ibis Reproductive Health
  • Peace as an Opportunity to Stop AIDS – an initiative triggered by the nomination of ICW Regional Coordinator, Patricia Pérez, for the Nobel Peace Prize
    in 2007 and 2008.

There was also an exciting opportunity for networking with local HIV-positive women at the Positive Women’s Forum held at the Nairobi City Council hall. Click here to see some photos from the Summit!

And click here to read a report on the Summit and here on the Women's Networking Zone (WNZ) activities


Women won't wait campaign launched in Latin America

ATHENA Network institutional member FEIM in Argentina helped launch a new campaign in Buenos Aires during the VI Latin American and Caribbean Forum on HIV/AIDS and STIs. The regional campaign is a version of the "Women Won't Wait" campaign; in Spanish it is called: "Women won't wait. Let's end HIV/AIDS and violence against women NOW!"

The panel launching the campaign included Mabel Bianco, director of FEIM; Marcela Suazo, UNFPA's regional LAC director; Jenny Meza, Minister of Health representing the First Lady of Honduras; journalist Martha Dillon, Alejandra Scampini of AIDS Action America and Brazilian Janaina Regina da Conceição, who gave a personal testimony.


Political advocacy by ATHENA members in the USA

In the United Status , ATHENA member CHANGE has renew ed its call on Congress to pass the PATHWAY Act as quickly as possible , asking US-based individuals and groups to urge their congressional representatives to vote for it. T he Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth Act (PATHWAY) strikes the earmark requiring that 33 % of all US government HIV prevention funding be spent on abstinence-until- marriage programs and promotes comprehensive and integrated approaches to HIV prevention.


Publications by ATHENA members

Two ATHENA Steering Committee members have recently or will soon publish papers. Shari Margolese, Board Chair of Voices of Positive Women in Canada, published a paper on women’s activism. It is available at the following website:

Ida Susser, professor of anthropology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and adjunct professor of socio-medical sciences at the HIV Center, Columbia University, will publish a paper on “Women and AIDS in the Second Millennium” in the Women’s Studies Quarterly, June 2007 .

Sonke Gender Justice Network launches report at UN 2007 CSW meeting

The Sonke Gender Justice Network launched the South Africa Country Report entitled "Working with men and boys to achieve gender equality" at the 2007 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). At the 48th CSW in 2004, the South African and other governments made formal commitments to implementing a range of recommendations aimed at “involving men and boys in achieving gender equality”. To document progress made since 2004, the Sonke Gender Justice Network was commissioned by the Office on the Status of Women within the South African Presidency to develop the official country report on involving men and boys in achieving gender equality. The country report offers the most comprehensive overview to date of work being done by government and civil society to engage men and boys in achieving gender equality. It identifies a number of key themes and issues a series of frank recommendations to accelerate work with men and to deepen its impact.

Key themes: The report indicates that "growing numbers of men are taking a stand against gender based violence" and argues that "there is visible support for work with men to achieve gender equality amongst some senior government officials" with evidence of "widespread adoption of work with men in many government departments" . The report also makes the case, though, that "men's violence against women remains unacceptably high" and notes that critics contend that low conviction rates for rape and domestic violence mean that "government inadvertedly sends a message to perpetrators that, in all likelihood, they can commit violence against women with relative impunity". The report states that "current efforts rely too heavily on workshops and community outreach" without sufficient attention to "other important change strategies such as advocacy for policy change or rights based activism". The report also draws attention to "problems related to capacity, clarity of purpose, coordination and insufficient long term commitment".

Key recommendations: The report calls for all sectors in South Africa to "intensify their efforts to end men's violence against women" and argues that important first steps in achieving this will include developing "a clear set of principles to guide work with men", expanding "existing policy frameworks to strengthen coordination and planning", "building the capacity of the public sector to engage men and boys in achieving gender equality". The report calls explicitly for a stronger focus on "rights based advocacy and community mobilisation to demand an end to men's violence against women". The report also calls for a stronger focus on reaching men and boys in rural areas and for more interventions focused on educating boys and young adult men, specifically arguing for efforts that "build youth capacity to assert leadership on increasing gender equality". The report also draws attention specifically to the relationship between men's behaviour and the spread of HIV/AIDS and argues that government and civil society should launch a "men and HIV services campaign to increase men's use of HIV services". The report also urges civil society organisations and community members to support and hold government accountable by participating in structures such as community policing fora and local AIDS councils, amongst others.

The report can be viewed at http://www.genderju za/sa-country- report-2007. html.

For more information on the Sonke Gender Justice Network, please visit: http://www.genderjustice.


ATHENA members at International Conference on SRH and HIV/AIDS linkages in Mumbai, India

From 4-8 February 2007, WHO and the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health of India co-sponsored an International Conference on Actions to Strengthen Linkages between Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS. The meeting in Mumbai brought together 300 delegates from 24 countries, including numerous representatives of networks and associations of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Three ATHENA Network members gave presentations at the conference. Two of the 72 invited speakers were Promise Mthembu of ICW and Maria de Bruyn of Ipas. Promise spoke on “Fertility and Parenthood”; Maria spoke on “Unwanted Pregnancy and Abortion: What is the Situation for HIV-positive Women Today?” In addition, Penny van Esterik of York University in Toronto, represented WABA through a poster on “Integrating Breastfeeding and Gender into Sexual and Reproductive Health in the Context of HIV/AIDS.”

This conference was notable in that two subjects which often prove to be sensitive and contentious were addressed. At least 8 of the oral presentations mentioned unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion and legal termination of pregnancy, as did 13 of the submitted posters, thereby acknowledging that this neglected area of reproductive health must be integrated into the comprehensive services offered to HIV-positive women. As one speaker noted: “If you don’t mention preventing unsafe abortion in relation to HIV, you are being naïve and irresponsible.”

The other contentious topic – sexual health - was addressed in one of the three interactive panel discussions (and this was one of the most interesting sessions at the conference): “Achieving Gender Equity in Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV”. The panelists included Raoul Fransen of Young Positives (The Netherlands), Lakshmi Lingan (India), Rama Vaidya (India), ALuisio Segurado (Brazil), Priya Nanda (India) and Maria de Bruyn. The panelists stressed that we must address issues of relevance to both men and women and that cut across different key populations affected by the epidemic: MSM, women, sex workers, IDUs, streetkids, HIV-positive and HIV-negative people. They advocated for bringing the topic of sexuality back into IEC on HIV/AIDS and for using indicators that can help us track how well we are doing that. Maria also promoted the use of a human rights framework as a basis for IEC, training and advocacy since it can help bridge key populations; for example, focusing on rights violations can help us address gender-based violence as an issue not only affecting women but also people of non-heterosexual sexual orientations. Unfortunately, some of the HIV-positive participants (including women who identified openly as positive) did not attend this session and it was a pity that their perspectives could not be included in the lively discussions between panelists and audience members.

Two topics that did not receive a great deal of attention at the conference were dilemmas faced by HIV-positive women regarding infant feeding and current debates surrounding opt-in versus opt-out provider-initiated HIV testing and counseling (PITC). A representative of WHO did acknowledge that the comments received on the draft UNAIDS/WHO guidance on PITC evoked concerns that PITC could infringe on people’s human rights, but he did not elucidate how this would be addressed. In a surprising comment, this speaker also criticized UNICEF for their lack of attention to family planning in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Many speakers highlighted debates currently taking place regarding SRH and HIV/AIDS, not least of which were a lack of consensus on the definitions of terminology used; some speak about integration of services, while others refer to linkages or convergence. A number of presenters enumerated various types of SRH services with which links to HIV/AIDS could be made. Quite a number of delegates left hoping that future meetings will now take a next step forward by reporting on how such linkages can be implemented. The presentations from the conference are scheduled to be published.

Two ATHENA members were featured in the December 2006 issue of the magazine Poz among heroes and heroines in addressing HIV/AIDS: Gregg Gonsalves (and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa, formerly GHMC) and Julie Davids (CHAMP, USA)

On World AIDS Day 2006, Advocates for Youth and CHANGE joined with faith-based and secular supporters of the US PATHWAY Act* in marking World AIDS Day and holding policymakers accountable for the failure of United States global HIV prevention policies. The Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth Act of 2006, known as the PATHWAY Act, is proposed legislation that would repeal the ideological abstinence-until-marriage earmark and address vulnerabilities of women and girls to HIV. Community members and advocates gathered while church bells rang every 5 seconds to mark the fact that globally, on average, there is a new HIV infection or AIDS death every 5 seconds of every day. Posters, signs, and speeches explained the failure of United States HIV prevention policies and call on Congress to act!

ATHENA member Mabel Bianco, of FEIM in Argentina, was recently featured in The Lancet as a trail-blazer for women’s reproductive rights.

The World YWCA has been chosen to sit on the Conference Coordinating Committee for the XVII International Conference on AIDS to be held in Mexico City in 2008. They invited ATHENA to be part of a reference group to help them ensure fair representation of women, youth and faith-based organizations.

ATHENA member FEIM is one of 25 organizations selected from 517 agencies worldwide as a finalist for the “Red Ribbon” award, created in December 2005 by UNAIDS, UNDP and XVI International Conference on AIDS. The “Red Ribbon: Celebrating Community Leaders” will be awarded every two years to recognize leadership and extraordinary action by community organizations in the field of HIV/AIDS. An international technical committee of 45 members chose the finalists; 20 of these organizations will each receive a prize of US$5000, while the five winners will each be awarded US$20,000. The prize winners will be announced at the Inaugural Session of the Conference.

United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on HIV/AIDS Review, 31 May to 2 June 2023

Laura Villa Torres, of Ipas Mexico, was one of 12 civil society speakers to address participants on the first day of the High-Level Meeting. Speaking on behalf of the international Youth Coalition, 25-year-old Villa focused on how sexual and reproductive rights must be considered in relation to HIV/AIDS. In her remarks, Villa noted that “even though many efforts have been made in the area of sexual and reproductive rights and health, mainly from the [International] Conference of Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, we have much work ahead. At the moment, half of the new [HIV] infections globally happen in young people between 15 and 24. Of those infections, 60 percent are women….Half of the people in the world are young. Investing economically and politically in youth today — with a comprehensive approach to sexual and reproductive rights — can mean the difference for the development of our societies for years to come, mainly in the matter of HIV/AIDS.”

Villa also confronted issues that are often considered taboo: the rights of people whose sexual identities don’t fit into heterosexual norms, abortion and how women often can’t control their reproductive lives — whether that’s due to abuse or cultural beliefs that disenfranchise them. “How many women have to face situations where their reproductive decisions are not respected? Often, women don’t have the necessary skills to negotiate condom use and, in addition to HIV, pregnancies — unplanned, unwanted or forced — are the order of the day.” She continued: “We’re even afraid to mention the word ‘abortion.’ But abortion is a reality for all women, including those living with HIV. Here are two fundamental premises we should respect. No woman should be forced to terminate her pregnancy because she has HIV. And every woman who lives with HIV and decides freely and voluntarily to choose abortion must have access to safe, quality services.”

During the UNGASS Review Meeting, the International Women’s AIDS Caucus (IAWC) organized two side events. The first, in collaboration with IPPF-Western Hemisphere, the Latin American Women’s Health Network and FEIM, “Women and HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean,” included presentations by Jacqueline Sharpe, President of IPPF International (Trinidad y Tobago); Alessandra Nilo, GESTOS/LACCASO (Brazil); Giselle Scanlon, Alianza para la Respuesta Nacional de Género y VIH/SIDA and Colectivo Mujer (Dominican Republic); Gloria Coreaga (Mexico); Ana Maria Pizarro, SI Mujer (Nicaragua). Mabel Bianco (FEIM, Argentina) chaired the session, which focused on feminization of the epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean from the perspective of women’s health activists and professionals concerned and working to change the impact of the epidemic on girls and women. After the presentations, a very fruitful exchange of experiences and issues was held among a very diverse audience from several regions, with the participation of governmental authorities (e.g., the Ministry of Health of Nicaragua), international NGOs, and interested activists groups, including sex workers associations, women’s groups, youth, and journalists.

IWAC and FEIM also organized a panel on “How to address the feminization of the pandemic.“ The panelists were: Meena Seshu, SANGRAM (India); Jodi Jacobson, CHANGE (USA); Bernice Heloo, SWAA (Ghana); and Mabel Bianco, FEIM/IWAC (Argentina). Joyce Hunter, HIV Center for Clinical & Behavioral Studies/NYSPI (USA), was the chair. After the presentations on interventions that have worked and not worked, dialogue with the audience focused on mobilizing governments to act, human rights and violence issues. Another topic of discussion was the limited influence of religion on individual behaviors, such as condom use.

Actions and achievements in past months

Lydia Mungherera, of TASO Uganda, is the Alternate Board member for the Developing Country NGO Delegation on The Global Fund to Fight AIDS,
Tuberculosis and Malaria
(GFATM). In November 2005, Lydia was appointed to the steering committee of the 3 X 5 Evaluation and participated in the creation of a civil society working group on the Global Fund for which she served as the chairperson. She was also appointed to the Operation Task Force to look at the management of the Fund as a civil-society representative for affected communities.

On 11 April 2006, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) received the 12th Annual Mildred Robbins Leet Award from InterAction’s Commission on the Advancement of Women. InterAction is the largest alliance of US-based international humanitarian NGOs, with over 160 member organizations working worldwide to overcome poverty, social exclusion and suffering by advancing social justice and basic dignity for all. The Leet Award was established in 1995 to recognize InterAction member agencies that are making significant progress in attaining gender equity in their programs and management. This year’s award criteria focused on organizational strategy for social change, concrete accomplishments, and lessons learned.

In March 2006, EngenderHealth, UNFPA and WHO co-convened a 4-day global consultation on the Rights of People Living with HIV/AIDS to Sexual and Reproductive Health. Maria de Bruyn of Ipas contributed to a technical
background paper produced by EngenderHealth and UNFPA; ICW produced a background paper on behalf of WHO. Participants included several ATHENA
members: Maria de Bruyn, Luisa Cabal of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Promise Mthembu and Emma Bell of ICW, Nada Ali Mustafa of Human Rights Watch.

With input from representatives of several international NGOs, Maria de Bruyn of Ipas wrote a civil society/NGO statement on reproductive health needs of women affected by HIV/AIDS for the 2006 session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (February-March 2006). It was published as an official UN document for the session and signed by 24 NGOs with ECOSOC status and an additional 19 individuals and NGOs. Ten ATHENA members were among the signatories.