UNAIDS speech for International Women’s Day, 5 March 2008

Wednesday 5 March, 2008
Ha Noi, VIet Nam 

This Saturday is International Women’s Day.  For those in the audience that are men, how will you celebrate?  Will you cook dinner for the woman in your life?  Give flowers to your co-workers?  But flowers and cards on one day a year are not enough.  What will you do for the rest of the year?  To really make a difference in addressing gender inequality in society we must do more – and not just on one day a year.  We must work together both to empower women and to sensitize men on the issues at stake.    

In his statement on International Women’s Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Achieving gender equality and empowering women is a goal in itself. It is also a condition for building healthier, better educated, more peaceful and more prosperous societies. When women are fully empowered and engaged, all of society benefits. Only in this way can we successfully take on the enormous challenges confronting our world — from conflict resolution and peacebuilding to fighting AIDS and reaching all the other Millennium Development Goals.”

Why does the Secretary General mention AIDS when talking about gender equality? Because women are more vulnerable to HIV than men are.  They are twice as likely to contract HIV through unprotected sex.  And gender inequality makes it more difficult for them to control their sexual lives, access healthcare and avoid behaviours that put them at greater risk for HIV.  Women also carry a disproportionate burden for caring for PLHIV.  

To address this situation, women must be empowered to access sexual and reproductive health services, to negotiate for condom use, and to decide when, with whom and under what conditions they have sexual relations.  They must have equal access to education and employment.  A woman who is financially independent is less likely to end up in commercial sex work or be trafficked – both major risk factors for HIV.

The government of Viet Nam is serious about gender equality, and has shown this by passing the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control in November 2007.  

Partner violence is closely linked to HIV prevention, care and treatment.  Men who do not respect their partner are more likely to be unfaithful, to refuse condoms, to rape and to coerce their partner into unwanted sex.  Women living in fear of their partner are less likely to get tested for HIV and to disclose their status.  They may be too intimidated to seek medical care, and the destruction of their self-esteem leaves them vulnerable to more general sexual and economic violence. 

In Viet Nam, one out of every three couples experiences domestic violence.   

Countering the old tradition that a husband has the right to “discipline” his wife, Ho Chi Minh called partner violence “against the law” and termed such violence “ruthless and barbaric.”  He called upon women to stand up for their legitimate rights.  

The Viet Nam Women’s Union and UNAIDS have been working closely to mainstream gender into HIV programmes.  It is my great hope that our partnership can grow ever stronger.  Let’s work together to insist on gender equality as a necessary prerequisite to halting the spread of HIV.  Let’s collaborate to support the government and line ministries to effectively and equitably implement the HIV Law, the Gender Equality Law, and the Domestic Violence Law.  In Viet Nam, social and economic development are recognised as equally important.  So let’s support the implementation of the national and provincial social economic development plans to ensure that gender and HIV are appropriately incorporated. 

If we want Viet Nam to develop, if we want to stop HIV, then we must not allow these laws and plans to be merely a collection of papers – as a flower is merely a spot of colour, on only one day a year.  

Thank you for your continued support and collaboration.  I wish you a joyful Women’s Day and chuc suc khoe.

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