(New York, December 1, 2003) — Violence and discrimination against women and girls is fueling Africa’s AIDS crisis, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today on World AIDS Day. African governments must make gender equality a central part of national AIDS programs if they are to succeed in fighting the epidemic.

The 40-page report, “Policy Paralysis: A Call for Action on HIV/AIDS-Related Human Rights Abuses Against Women and Girls in Africa,” documents human rights abuses that women and girls suffer at each stage of their lives and that increase their risk for HIV infection. Girls face sexual abuse and violence, in and out of school. Women in long-term relationships risk violence if they insist on condom use or refuse sex. Widows are discriminated against in property and inheritance rights. And women and girls are raped in war and civil conflict, where rape is used strategically as a weapon.

“Women and girls in Africa are dying by the millions, partly because their second-class status makes them vulnerable to violence and unsafe sex,” said Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS Program at Human Rights Watch. “In the fight against AIDS, protecting women and girls from sexual abuse and ensuring their equal rights under the law are as crucial as keeping the blood supply clean.”

The report sharply criticizes governments for allowing these abuses to continue and ignoring the critical link between them and HIV/AIDS among women and girls. Legal and judicial remedies for violations of the rights of women and girls are often inadequate or nonexistent. Even where such laws exist, they are poorly enforced. Women and girls who are courageous enough to file complaints are often laughed at or mistreated by officials.

“There is near paralysis in African governments’ response to HIV/AIDS among women and girls,” said Csete. “State failure to protect women and girls from such abuses is fueling the AIDS epidemic in Africa. And studies suggest that this is a global phenomenon.”

Women and girls represent 58 percent of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, women and girls are seven times more likely to be HIV positive than their male counterparts. While Africa is the only region where females outnumber males among the newly HIV-infected, studies show that women and girls in other parts of the developing world — including the Caribbean, Central America, South Asia and Southeast Asia — have greater susceptibility to the virus as it moves from “high risk” groups to the general population.

Human Rights Watch made detailed recommendations to African governments, the United Nations and donors — including the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — to take immediate action to address gender-based violence and discrimination. Human Rights Watch called on all governments to make gender equality a central element of national AIDS programs.

“Even Uganda’s widely heralded success in fighting AIDS will unravel as long as women face violence when they refuse sex or demand safer sex,” said Csete. “These abuses don’t go away by themselves; well funded programs are needed. The Global Fund and other donors should promote protection of women’s and girls’ rights as a central part of AIDS programs.”

The report covers abuses in countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa: West Africa (Sierra Leone and Togo), Central Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo), East Africa (Kenya and Uganda) and Southern Africa (South Africa and Zambia).

Human Rights Watch recommended that African governments take urgent action to:

  • Enact and enforce legislation to protect women and girls from sexual and domestic violence and marital rape.
  • Provide training and resources to police, judicial officers and other government officials to facilitate reporting and prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes.
  • Enact and enforce legislation to ensure gender equality in property ownership, inheritance and divorce.
  • Prohibit application of customary law or practice to undermine women’s rights to property.
  • Abolish customary practices for widows such as “widow inheritance,” where women are “inherited” by one of their male in-laws, and ritual “cleansing,” where women may be forced to have sex with men of low social standing to cleanse them of “evil spirits.”
  • Ensure equal access to health services and education, and take measures to protect girls from sexual violence at school.