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Message of support by Ms. Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Inaugural Summit of GlobalPOWER Women Network Africa

Accelerating Action for Women Empowerment and Gender Equality in the area of HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Harare, 24 May 2012

His Excellency President Mugabe
Right Honourable Prime Minister Tsvangirai,
Honourable Deputy Prime Minister Khupe,
Honourable Deputy Prime Minister Mutambara,
His Excellency Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission,
Her Excellency Minister Okonjo-Iweala
Your Royal Highnesses
Honourable ministers,
Distinguished delegates,
Dear colleagues,

It is an honour for me to address this august body of leaders assembled here today, to launch the Africa chapter of the GlobalPOWER Women’s Network.  I salute the efforts of the African Union, the Government of Zimbabwe and UNAIDS in organizing this forum to promote and accelerate action for women’s empowerment and gender equality in the area of HIV and sexual and reproductive health rights. 

Women across our continent have shown themselves to be formidable agents of change. They have given voice and shone a light on the intersectional forms of discrimination faced by women and young girls.  Yet, the lack of respect for women’s rights remains entrenched in our societies.

In Africa, we continue to face challenges in supporting rights based responses to HIV and sexual and reproductive health for women and young girls.

We have had some facts which speak for themselves.

The leading causes of death among women of reproductive age are HIV and complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.  In sub-Saharan Africa alone, young women aged 15-24 years are as much as eight times more likely than men to be living with HIV.  Vulnerability to HIV amongst sexually active young women, gender-based violence and discrimination, as well as an inability to access sexual and reproductive health services, are causing an explosion of multiple epidemics.

Our starting point in addressing these epidemics must be the recognition of all people as equal in the enjoyment of their human rights. 

When women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are violated, they are denied the ability to have full autonomy over their bodies; to lead healthy and productive lives; and to decide if and when to give birth to new life with freedom of choice and without fear of discrimination.

When we deny adequate protection to women living with or vulnerable to HIV, we deny them the ability to negotiate and make informed decisions about safe sex; we perpetuate discrimination; and we cause preventable death.

A human rights based approach requires that women are seen as agents who have control and decision-making power over their own health, as holders of rights and entitlements rather than passive recipients of a charitable service.

We have a plethora of declarations, statements of commitment and legally binding texts that affirm these principles.  However, we have to face the facts and admit that we have not done enough to turn our rhetoric into action and reality for the women and young girls of this continent. 
Some of the most difficult leadership calls are those that ask governments to step forward to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights that must be realized for us to effectively address HIV and the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls. 

Leadership is required on many fronts and let me name a few:

Property inheritance and child custody rights for widows;
Early marriage;
Sex education for young people;
Sexual violence and marital rape;
Access to a full range of modern contraceptive methods;
Protection for marginalized and key populations at higher risk of HIV exposure;
Criminalization of homosexuality and sex work;
Stigma associated with HIV and unwanted pregnancies; and
Forced sterilization of HIV positive women.

These challenges call for a change in law, policy and practice.  Experience has demonstrated time and again that those who are most affected are best placed to incentivise society to remove the barriers that constrain them, and by extension, all of us.  I therefore encourage the GlobalPOWER Women’s Network to act as a real voice for affected women and young girls in addressing these concerns.

My office, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, stands ready to work with you together with civil society, the African Union and UNAIDS to meet the challenges that we face. 

I wish you successful deliberations.

Thank you.