Good women, girls and HIV: Morality over health at the Commission on the Status of Women

3 April 2014

Every March, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meets at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. This year’s theme was the Millennium Development Goals, because a new development framework is being worked out beyond 2015. Technology is clearly linked to development, and Jac sm Kee, APC’s Women’s Rights Programme Manager, spoke about ICTs and the Internet as Powerful Means in Advancing Women’s Rights and Empowerment: Opportunities and Challenges. Jan Moolman, the Women’s Rights Project Coordinator, explained the centrality of media and ICTs in conversations about development.

In addition to the events about technology, this year’s Commission on the Status of Women negotiated a resolution on HIV. Negotiating the resolution on Women, the girl child and HIV/AIDS was difficult and went late into the night. These were “informal” negotiations, which means that only government and UN representatives were allowed in the room. Civil society was not permitted in the room during negotiation. Advocates sat on the couch outside the negotiating room to ask delegates what was happening inside, and to present their recommendations and positions to delegates.

Some of the most contentious issues addressed some of the groups of people most vulnerable to HIV, including sex workers, whose HIV risk is over 13 times that of others globally, and people who use drugs. The final document has no mention of sex workers or people who use drugs. This is a missed opportunity to develop an evidence-based approach to HIV among women. Nor were sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) included in the HIV resolution, despite transgender people being more vulnerable to HIV, and the high levels of gender-based violence faced by lesbians and transgender people. Lesbians and transgender women were so frustrated with SOGI issues being considered “too controversial” by governments that advocates circulated a statement about the need to address gender identity at the CSW. Considering this, it makes sense that rather than referring to sexual and reproductive health and rights, documents negotiated during CSW refer to sexual and reproductive health, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, and sexually transmitted infections.

As with technology, in health, including HIV, many governments and even advocates were more comfortable with discussing protecting women and girls rather than using the language of rights to enable people, especially female people, to take care of themselves. For some women, CSW seems to be more concerned with restricting their options than with realising rights. I am thinking of sex workers foremost, because during CSW, there was a great deal of discussion about trafficking, with a particular focus on sex trafficking, rather than the voices of sex workers. While sex workers presented at a few side events, events inside the UN headquarters were so uniform that when I quoted trafficked women and sex workers on a panel sponsored by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights about human trafficking, an attendee told me after that she had attended many anti-trafficking events and that the perspective that there is a difference between sex work and trafficking was not being heard. There is a lot of history behind this, with sex workers speaking about how they combat trafficking, or have left exploitative situations, but their input has been disregarded. Now they and other women deemed too controversial are excluded from the resolution on HIV. It is shameful that the CSW seems to be the meeting where only “good” or “respectable” women count.

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