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In 1998, Gugu Dlamini, a courageous South African woman, was beaten to death after she declared openly that she was HIV-positive. The incident drew international attention to the plight of women affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa and more generally to the stigma and discrimination that continues to be associated with the disease, even after so many millions of deaths. The cases detailed in this report demonstrate that the illness, mortality, abuse, and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS owe their existence in large part to a long tradition of subordination and violent abuse of women and girls in Africa. Reformed national laws and policies to date have not been effective in counteracting this tradition and abusive practices condoned in customary law have exacerbated the problem.

Some have argued that since the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS and the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, both in 2001, HIV/AIDS in Africa is beginning to find a noticeable place on the global stage, however inadequate it may still be relative to the scale of the epidemic’s destruction. As national AIDS control programs across the continent draw greater national and international resources, they provide an opportunity to transform the level of support that the fight against gender inequity in Africa has so far enjoyed.

It is a shame that a crisis of the proportion of HIV/AIDS is necessary to focus attention on human rights abuses of women and girls in Africa, but it would be inexcusable to miss this opportunity. African governments and donors alike must begin to see protection and fulfillment of the rights of African women and girls as a central strategy in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This means more than occasional rhetorical flourishes or poorly funded gender components in larger projects. It means real resources, real coordination across sectors, and real participation by affected women in decision-making. Without this commitment, the conspiring evils of HIV/AIDS and gender inequality in Africa will win the day.

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December 2003