Civil Society not Impressed
Patricia Watson, journalist
Panos Caribbean: June 16, 2011: Lorna Golding, wife of Prime Minister Bruce Golding, was among thirty First Ladies from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean who gathered at a special event in New York to mobilize support around achieving the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS’ (UNAIDS) vision of Zero new HIV infections among children by 2015. The event was held on the opening day of the United Nations (UN) High Level Meeting on AIDS which took place in New York June 8 – 10.
Mrs. Golding and her counterparts participated in a session entitled, “First Spouses for the Elimination of New HIV Infections in Children”. In her brief presentation Mrs. Golding informed that Jamaica has successfully reduced HIV transmission from mother to child since the inception of its Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme in 2004.
“The number of HIV positive pregnant women receiving antiretroviral medication has increased significantly from 47 per cent in 2004 to 83 per cent in 2009. This has led to a dramatic reduction in mother-to-child transmission of HIV from 25 per cent in 2002 to below five per cent since,” she said.
Mrs. Golding further noted that stigma associated with HIV and AIDS is one of the reasons pregnant women opt out of testing or don’t access public health services until very late in their pregnancies.
“All of us as first spouses, many of us being mothers, can help shatter the misconceptions around HIV by lending our voices to the movement and encouraging women to get tested early,” she noted.
She further noted that she will work to ensure that there is an end to the stigma and discrimination impeding Jamaica’s HIV response.
Civil society representatives who were in attendance at the event felt Mrs. Golding’s presentation was disappointing and lacked clarity in what her plans are as it relates to eliminating vertical transmission of HIV.
“I’m disappointed that there were no specific commitments made by the First Spouse on this very critical issue. She only quoted from our national prayer that ‘under God’ Jamaica will play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race. I’m surprised she didn’t seize the opportunity to seek specific assistance from the international community to support prevention of vertical transmission in Jamaica,” Legal Advisor, Marginalized Groups AIDS-Free World, Maurice Tomlinson said.
“She gave no indication as to what she or the Government plans to do. This makes it palpably clear she and the Government fail to understand the issue of vertical transmission which is not going away but is festering and threatens to explode in our high-sex and multiple/concurrent partners’ context.”
Director of Programmes and Training at Eve for Life, Joy Crawford had similar views.
“I found that the contribution lacked specifics or any clear action plan, strategies or projects to be undertaken by the first lady. In her promise to play her part in upholding the national pledge “Before God and all mankind … we anticipate she will develop clear advocacy and interventions that will reduce the current societal, familial and moral stigma and discrimination faced by the young pregnant adolescent female especially those identified as HIV positive,” Mrs. Crawford said.
Also addressing the session was first lady from Haiti, Sophia Martelly. Mrs. Martelly committed to working to increase the involvement of men in the Prevention of Mother-to-child transmission in Haiti; improve sex education for adolescent and to supporting programmes that integrate the empowerment of women and improvement in their economic status.
UNAIDS note that an estimated 1,000 babies are infected with HIV every day, 90 per cent of whom are in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV is also the leading cause of maternal deaths in developing countries. The First Ladies in general agreed to advocate for comprehensive and integrated access to maternal and child health services. They also advocated for an end to gender inequality, gender violence, discrimination and inequitable laws that prevent pregnant women from accessing HIV testing and counselling, prevention, treatment and support services.
On return to their respective countries, some of the First Ladies agreed to advance key action steps to ensure that children are born free from HIV and to promote lifesaving HIV services for women and children. Some of the actions put forward include supporting efforts to: increase the number of centres providing free maternal, newborn and child health services, including treatment to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to children; strengthen sexual and reproductive health programmes for adolescents living with HIV and ensure meaningful engagement of people living with HIV.