Conference on gender, child survival and HIV/AIDS underway

Researchers, policymakers and HIV/AIDS advocates from around the globe are meeting at York University to discuss topics ranging from the particular impacts of AIDS on women to the debate over transmission of HIV through breastfeeding.  For the first time, breastfeeding advocates, women’s and HIV/AIDS groups are sitting down together to discuss their common concerns and how they can collaborate on improving child survival in the era of AIDS.

The three-day conference, “Gender, Child Survival and HIV/AIDS: From Evidence to Policy”, was due to open with a public forum yesterday evening chaired by Professor Penny Van Esterik (right), of York University’s Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts. It finishes tomorrow afternoon with a keynote plenary panel that will develop a series of recommendations for a Joint Consensus Statement on gender, breastfeeding and HIV which will be delivered at the 16th International AIDS Conference taking place Aug. 13 to 18 in Toronto.

The event, which has been organized by Van Esterik, is co-sponsored by many academic units at York, local NGOs, and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) in Penang, Malaysia. The opening forum included an update on HIV research related to issues of gender and infant feeding as well as a panel discussion on alternative perspectives about transmission of HIV.

The conference is anchored on the core tenet that women not only make up half the HIV positive adults in many parts of the world, they are often treated as if they were the “cause” of AIDS. Their lack of empowerment in different cultural settings means that they cannot insist on safer sex. Women are more vulnerable to infections, have higher viral loads, are often diagnosed later, and have poorer access to care and medications. They are most likely to be exposed to abuse and violence, and are most often the caregivers for HIV positive family members.

The conference will look at the dilemma faced by HIV positive mothers who are burdened with the weighing the risks involved with different methods of infant feeding. The risk of HIV transmission through breastfeeding needs to be balanced against the increased risk of morbidity and mortality when infants are not breastfed. This is only one problem facing mothers in many parts of the world who are HIV positive, but it is one that is not well understood, and is rarely integrated into broader discussions of gender. The issue of breastfeeding is only one example of the complexity of gender issues for women who are HIV positive. In brief, gender inequity underlies the marginalization of women living with HIV/AIDS, and discussions of prevention and treatment must be considered within this context.

Speakers from 20 countries will be offering panels and workshops today and Tuesday addressing a variety of topics including the health outcomes of various infant feeding options, advocacy initiatives for women living with AIDS, gender, violence and HIV, and challenging dominant paradigms. Representatives from Africa, Asia and Latin America will provide regional perspectives on HIV/AIDS programs and policies.

The Gender, Survival and HIV/AIDS: From Evidence to Policy conference continues until May 9 in the Room 152, Founders Assembly Hall and nearby classrooms, Founders College on York’s Keele campus. For more information visit the conference Web site.