Gender equality in decision-making: the sad reality

Tyler Crone, Co-Founder and Coordinating Director of the ATHENA Network, looks at the position of women in the international response to the AIDS and HIV epidemic.
E. Tyler Crone
11 March 2009

Have we achieved the equal participation of women and men in decision-making processes at all levels? Having recently undertaken a review of women's leadership and participation in the AIDS response for UNIFEM, I have been intensely immersed in answering this question and understanding where we stand on the trajectory for the past two years. And now reflecting on this year's Commission on the Status of Women, I sadly find that we are far from the mark.

Despite clear calls for women's participation in decision-making and the increased attention to and resources allocated for HIV and AIDS, as well as heightened debate around the "feminization" of the epidemic, women's full participation in the AIDS response has still not been realized. A rapid scan of available data on participation, suggests that there is no decision-making mechanism in the AIDS response where the numbers of women equal the numbers of men around the table. And when women do obtain a ‘seat at the table', we are brought in only to speak to ‘women's issues'. Further, the women who are the most affected by the epidemic, have a longer road to travel and are frequently only invited to the ‘table' after agendas have been set or policy decisions taken.

How is this so? How can we be at the 53rd Commission on the Status of Women and still stand outside so many decision-making forums? How is it that we're still talking to each other in the hallways and on the sidelines? How is it that our debates are not directly shaping the flow of funds or the development of programs?

The reasons do not make for a sexy sound-bite or an easy answer. One session I attended yesterday on the interrelationship between land rights, food security, HIV and AIDS, and poverty outlined how women are shouldering the burden of caring for and feeding their families without land ownership. If women don't have food to eat or food to feed their families, how can they participate in these global processes which shape policies, programs, and funding streams?

In a different session, Dazon Dixon Diallo of SisterLove in the United States spoke about setting out to understand why black women were kept from participating in the reproductive rights movement - and set forth how the framework of reproductive choice was too narrow a one for women in whose lives the human right to decide if and when to have a baby, the conditions under which to have that baby, the decision to terminate the pregnancy, and the right to parent the children they already had were first and foremost. In interrogating sexual and reproductive rights and health for women of color, Delphine Serumaga of POWA in South Africa set forward the organization's starting point of understanding women's rights to be framed by and determined by patriarchy.

This is all to set forward that not only have we as a global community and a global movement failed to seriously address and advance the conditions of women's lives and women's access to resources, including land rights, that constrain women's participation in decision-making, but that we have also created movements in our own midst that do not make room for our diversity so that we may find a common ground. So not only has there been a failure by the state to meet obligations to advance women's rights, there is also ‘blame' that we share for failing to reach our hands across movements, across our regional, racial, sexual, or socio-economic divide to find a way forward together.

It is my hope that the seeds diverse stakeholders in the gender, human rights, sexual and reproductive health, and HIV communities have planted together through ATHENA can blossom into a bigger tent, a more robust voice, and new tables where women sit as true equals with men. 

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