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AIDS 2016: Q&A with Françoise Girard, President, International Women’s Health Coalition

At the International AIDS Conference taking place this week in Durban, South Africa, 19,000 medical experts, policy-makers, government officials and campaigners have gathered to forge a path to end AIDS by 2030.

We had a chance to catch up with Françoise Girard, President at the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), to talk about her work on comprehensive sexual education for girls and women around the world and her partnership with Anglo American.

Q: What motivated you to work in the fight for women’s rights to health?

Our early experiences are often the most powerful. My grandmother, who was a brilliant and wise woman, had 12 children, 10 of whom survived (my father was the sixth child). Once she was married, she never had a say in the matter, and never had time to do anything else but serve her husband and children.

I was shocked by that as a young girl, and felt very strongly that women should be able to control their reproductive lives, to realise their full potential. For women, reproductive health is the basis for everything else – without it, we cannot study, work or participate in public life.

Q: How does your work support the fight against HIV/AIDS?

Since it was founded in 1984, IWHC has worked to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and adolescent girls in developing countries. We fund women’s groups who fight for access to sexual and reproductive health services, education and information in their own countries.

Since we are based in New York, we also advocate for the appropriate programmes and budgets at the United Nations. We have achieved a great deal in 33 years, including global recognition of reproductive rights, and greater attention to the sexual health of young people.

HIV/AIDS is an intrinsic part of our work to advance women’s health and rights. For example, whether a young girl is married off as a child bride; can negotiate with her male partner to use a condom; can access testing and treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections; or have her child-bearing decisions respected and supported.

In Southern and Eastern Africa in particular, girls experience high rates of HIV infection, unwanted pregnancy and sexual violence in their relationships, typically with older men. We and our partners are determined to break that cycle, and to educate young girls and boys about gender equality, mutual respect and about their health and bodies, from an early age.

Q: What role do you see the private sector playing?

IWHC has partnered with Anglo American and community-based organizations for over 15 years, in Brazil and in Peru, to offer sexual and reproductive health education, information and services to young people in mining communities. The results have been astonishing: in Barro Alto, for example, unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections dropping dramatically within a year. This is true corporate social responsibility.

Anglo American has also been a very positive factor as part of the Private Sector delegation of Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, which funds the HIV/AIDS response globally.

Anglo American has led by example there, with its HIV workplace and community programmes, to urge other corporations to do more.

Q: Why are you and IWHC in Durban? What do you hope to achieve?

Women and girls are where we will win or lose the fight against the HIV epidemic in Africa. IWHC is here with other women’s groups to sound the alarm about the appalling rates of HIV infections in young girls in generalised epidemics.

We are here to call for the evidence-based solutions that will break that vicious cycle: comprehensive sexuality education that addresses gender norms and power in relationships; and girl/youth-friendly sexual health services. We have organised a high-level plenary session on day 1 of the Conference, where the largest HIV funders and players (Global Fund, PEPFAR, UNAIDS and others) will hopefully commit to these solutions. I am hopeful we can catalyse this significant change.

The Anglo American Group Foundation has supported Francoise’s work since 2009. Read about their work though Alana’s and Sofia’s stories on our dedicated HIV/AIDS page.

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