African women are no strangers to overcoming adversity. Every day across Rwanda, women perform small miracles, working long hours or traveling great distances to provide for their families. Increasingly, they are starting small businesses and running for office—while at the same time tending homes and raising children.
But when it comes to staying healthy, the odds are stacked against women. Biology and gender inequality make women, especially mothers, more vulnerable to disease and death. In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, one in every 22 women still dies during pregnancy or childbirth as compared to one in every 4,800 women in the United States and only one in every 47,600 in Ireland.
It is unconscionable that being born female increases a woman’s risk for disease and premature death. Women have too few choices about their health and too few options that would give them the chance for a safe and healthy life.
That is why we applaud the growing attention being paid to the health of women and mothers around the world. Just this week, 3,500 world leaders, advocates and health experts are gathering at the Women Deliver conference in Washington D.C. to keep up the pressure to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide.
Their measure of success is nothing less than achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal 5 –a 75 percent reduction in global maternal mortality by 2015, compared to 1990 levels.
There has been measurable progress; fewer women are dying during pregnancy or childbirth now than at any point in the past thirty years. But in the fight to save lives, the path is rarely easy, and this progress is seriously threatened by the unrelenting spread of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa. AIDS contributes to some 60,000 deaths during pregnancy and childbirth every year, most of them on this continent.
From Washington D.C. to Lilongwe, Johannesburg, Kampala and Nairobi, AIDS is the leading killer of women aged 15-44 in the world.
Our collective efforts to improve maternal health globally will fall far short unless we help women protect themselves against HIV. It is clear that we need to focus on both issues at the same time if we are to make a significant and lasting impact on the lives of Africa’s women. And healthier women mean healthier families and a stronger society.
At Women Deliver, reproductive health advocates and HIV prevention advocates are teaming up to find innovative ways to give women more control over their health, even in the poorest areas. This includes learning from each other and working together to build on past successes.
A promising example already underway is the effort to adapt new reproductive health technologies in the hopes of giving women long-lasting ways to prevent HIV. One device called a vaginal ring is popular among women in the U.S. and Europe for birth control.
It is self-administered and easy-to-use, and provides month-long protection against pregnancy. Now, scientists are testing a vaginal ring that could potentially provide protection against HIV for up to a month at a time—giving women a powerful new tool against AIDS.
This ring contains a potent antiretroviral drug (ARV) like those used successfully in HIV treatment and preventing mother to child transmission.
The ring belongs to a class of products known as vaginal microbicides—products that women could use to prevent HIV—that are under development specifically for women.
If successful, microbicides could help fill a major gap in current HIV prevention strategies, which usually require male consent or force women to choose between staying healthy and having children.
Women in South Africa have started volunteering for an expanded safety study to test the microbicide ring. It is hoped that other African nations will start the same study shortly.
We also hope that the results of this research, and future studies to measure its efficacy against HIV, could potentially give women even more control over their sexual and reproductive health.
And since they might protect women against their greatest killer, these innovative efforts constitute a worthwhile investment in our collective future.
We cannot let women’s progress fail for lack of ability to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. 2010 could be the year when the health of African women becomes a global priority. We must use this opportunity to build the world we envision, where women no longer risk death just because of their gender.
Ms. Elizabeth Mataka is Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS in Africa and Executive Director of the Zambia National AIDS Network; Dr. Zeda Rosenberg is CEO of the International Partnership for Microbicides.