Woman as Reason by Maya Jhansi
News & Letters, July 2001
AIDS reveals sickness of capitalism
On June 25-27, the first global summit to discuss the greatest
disease catastrophe in human history was convened by the UN. At
least 22 million people have died of AIDS in the last 20 years.
Over 36 million live with the AIDS virus--25 million live on the
continent of Africa. In Botswana, with the highest rate of AIDS
in the world, 38.8 % of people 18-49 years old, and nearly half
of women in their 20s, are infected with HIV. An article in THE
NATION rightly called this reality global apartheid.
It's so strange that people refer to the AIDS pandemic as a
"ravage of nature" or the act of a vengeful god. In
fact it is nothing but dirty capitalist politics--the disease
may not be, but the pandemic is. Why did it take so long for the
world's leaders (not all of them, none from the
"developed" world) to finally get together to discuss
LIMITATIONS OF THE UN
So what came out of this conference? A watered down Declaration
of Commitment that bowed to pressures by Islamic fundamentalists
and the Vatican to drop gays, drug users and prostitutes from
being singled out as especially vulnerable groups. They also
fought inclusion of wording about the right of women to control
their sexual lives, but lost.
The Declaration highlights prevention over treatment, setting up
deadlines for governments to bring down the rate of infection,
but virtually ignoring the millions without access to
life-saving drugs. So far, the only positive effect of the
conference was that the U.S. felt pressured to drop its lawsuit
against Brazil for manufacturing and distributing for free some
U.S. patented AIDS drugs.
Like the disease itself, this crisis is so manifold and
nefarious that our response can't be filtered down to one or
another program. In fact, this issue has rekindled an important
dimension of the anti-globalization movement. ACT-UP, which had
dwindled into inactivity in the last decade, has remobilized
itself into a smaller but more diverse group calling for the
canceling of Third World debts and access to AIDS drugs for all
They led a rally in New York before the conference that suggests
a new opening for a more comprehensive response to the epidemic
than the UN is unlikely to provide on its own. However, this
dimension of the anti-globalization movement, like all the
others, needs to go deeper into the issues, to uncover a truly
viable opposition to this insanely inhuman world. Nothing shows
this better than the impact of AIDS on women.
Nearly half of the world's 36 million people infected with HIV
are women--and the number is growing. Women now make up 60% of
new infections. In sub-Saharan Africa, teen-age girls are five
times more likely to be infected than boys. In the U.S. a 2001
Kaiser Foundation Report found that women make up a growing
number of new HIV infections, and that women of color are
"hardest hit." Although Black women are only 13% of
U.S. females over age 13, they account for 63% of the AIDS cases
among women in that age group.
The response of the UN is inadequate. While UNAIDS signed an
agreement with the UN Development Fund for Women to fight the
gender inequity that facilitates the spread of AIDS, it had only
a very few sessions on women and AIDS at the global conference.
To make matters worse, UNAIDS singled out men as the focus for
World Aids Day both this year and last. Their logic is telling.
In their statement about the World AIDS Day campaign, they argue
that, "All over the world, women find themselves at special
risk of HIV infection because of their lack of power to
determine where, when and how sex takes place. What is less
recognized, however, is that the cultural beliefs and
expectations that make this the case also heighten men's own
SEXISM AND AIDS
How can they use patriarchy and violence against women as an
excuse to focus on men? Not only do they argue that men are more
affected by AIDS, but they believe that only through mobilizing
men will any of the problems implicated in the spread of AIDS be
stopped. This displays a blatant disregard for women's
This disregard for women's self-determination is at the core of
everything. The conditions that have led to the increased rate
of AIDS in women include their lack of power and control over
their own bodies, their susceptibility to violence and rape, and
their inability to force a man to use a condom.
Indeed, as African feminists have pointed out, the threat and
fear of AIDS has made matters worse for African women. The fear
of AIDS is one cause of the continued and sometimes increased
practice of female genital mutilation. Many see it as a
protection against AIDS. In fact, it increases women's chances
of getting AIDS when they do have intercourse because of cutting
and trauma in the area. In addition, younger and younger girls
are being pushed into prostitution and marriage, both of which
put young girls at risk of contracting AIDS.
The feeble declarations of the UN will do very little, in the
end, to fight this deadly reality. This is something women have
learned since the much touted Beijing women's conference in
1995. At that time, a lot of similar declarations were made, but
women, especially when it comes to AIDS, are worse off now. It's
fine that the global summit brought worldwide attention to the
AIDS pandemic, but until the inhuman logic of an inhuman world
is challenged at its root, we will not be able to eradicate this
plague. Without that, the priorities of the medical world, of
drug companies, governments and leaders will remain as they are.
The virtual holocaust that Africa faces (5-7 million expected to
die by 2010 in South Africa alone) makes this absolutely
unacceptable. There is no time to waste.