African Women Face Social Battles in AIDS Fight

Dr. Helene Gayle, president of CARE USA, tells Farai Chideya the women of the developing world cannot protect themselves from AIDS until they're empowered. She argues the response to AIDS has to be culturally sensitive. But it also has to challenge traditions that allow women to be victimized.

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ED GORDON, host:

So what can do done to protect and empower women in the developing world? NPR's Farai Chideya recently spoke with Dr. Helene Gayle, president of Care USA, a leading humanitarian aid group. She's also an outspoken advocate for women's rights internationally. Dr. Gayle says our response to AIDS has to be culturally sensitive, but it also has to challenge traditions that allow women to be victimized.

Dr. HELENE GAYLE (President, CARE USA): We have to look at what are the drivers? What makes women vulnerable to HIV, and how can we really work to improve some of the underlying factors that put women at risk for HIV? One woman talked about being at risk because she didn't have food put on her plate or the plate of her children. So we need to look at the issue of food security. And can we help to increase crop production in areas where people are at risk of malnutrition, in areas where there has been major droughts, etc.?

But in addition, we also need to look at the reasons why women are seen as unequal in society so that they don't continually face being at risk for HIV. So often we focus on the female side of the equation without also looking at what is it that we can do that really helps to change men's view of women in the short term and the in long term.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Now, the president has talked about the ABC approach to prevention - abstain, use condoms, be faithful - but in many developing world cultures, do women really have a choice in any of that?

Dr. GAYLE: In many places, the ABC approach, while necessary, is not sufficient. And many women themselves may be monogamous, but it is their partner who has multiple partners that puts them at risk. Oftentimes, she cannot get her partner to use a condom, nor is it possible to abstain when she's forced into sexual relations. But I think we - again, it's important to take a much more holistic view, accept the fact that women are oftentimes not in control of the factors, and that we get realistic about what we need to do to both empower women, but also to change the way that men view their relationship to women.

CHIDEYA: I want you to discuss a couple things specifically. One is are there any concrete ways that your organization or other organizations you know of are really trying to work on this issue of the women's broader role and how much agency women have. And also secondly, give us an update on the issue of microbicide. This is a medical development that might allow women to have more say in protecting themselves from AIDS.

Dr. GAYLE: Our programs look at giving women other ways of livelihood besides exchanging sex for food or for money - look at ways in which women can start saving, start becoming more independent, start businesses so that they aren't reliant on men for their basic survival. And looking at tools to empower women so that they are able to say no or demand condom use by their partners.

On the other hand, the point that you raised about new options is critically important. Funding for products like microbicide, medical gels that women can use intervaginally that would reduce the chances that if they're exposed to HIV, that they would actually get the infection. We're looking at barrier methods like the female diaphragm or female condom that could provide new barriers for women that don't necessarily rely as much on male compliance. So I think the whole area of looking at female-initiated or female-controlled methods for HIV prevention continues to be a critically important area of research.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Helene Gayle, thank you very much.

Dr. GAYLE: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with Dr. Helene Gayle, president of CARE USA. Tune in tomorrow for the third part of our Living with AIDS series. We'll return to Kenya to follow up with the women of Rusinga Island, and we'll meet a former fisherman turned AIDS activist.

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GORDON: Coming up, a judge rules that the FBI raid on a Congressman's Washington, D.C. office was constitutional, and points for the poor. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable. This is NPR News.

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