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HIV and AIDS, Women, Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here again this year and welcome you all to our 14th Professor Micheal Kelly Lecture on HIV and AIDS to mark this year’s World AIDS Day.

This lecture series was established in 2006 by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to honour and recognise the inspirational work of Fr Michael Kelly. It is a tribute to Fr Michael that this lecture series continues to draw this level of interest and enthusiasm year after year.

I would like to begin by extending a very special thanks to the Irish Global Health Network who have organised this event together with my Department over the last number of years.

The lecture series continues to act as a platform for debate on how best to ensure that individuals and groups discriminated against and marginalised due to their social and economic status, their sexuality or their gender, are not left behind in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

While Fr Michael is not physically present with us here tonight, he continues to inspire all of us with his deep insight and understanding of how to overcome the HIV and AIDS pandemic, in his adopted country of Zambia and throughout the developing and developed world. We are once again honoured to have members of Fr Michael’s family join us this evening and I would like to take this opportunity to formally welcome them here.

Earlier this year the Taoiseach launched Ireland’s new policy for International Development, A Better World. This new policy reaffirms and intensifies our continued efforts to contribute to a more equal, peaceful and sustainable world and to reach those who are furthest behind.

A Better World commits Ireland to scaling up resources and capacity in areas that directly align with tonight’s theme, areas such as gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, and women’s economic empowerment.

At home and abroad, Ireland recognises that gender equality is fundamental to the transformations required to not only achieve the SDGs but also to meet our promise to reach the furthest behind first.

A Better World includes a strengthened focus on improved health for women and girls, a new initiative on sexual and reproductive health and an emphasis on women’s economic empowerment. We know that by empowering women with greater agency, they are more likely to choose to have fewer children, they are more likely to access health services, and more likely to have control over health resources. They are also less likely to suffer domestic violence.
Ireland’s response to HIV and AIDS includes strong support to efforts focused on prevention, in particular prevention for those most affected by HIV and AIDS.

Ireland remains committed to ending HIV and AIDS. This year my Department demonstrated this commitment through our support to the Global Fund, for AIDS, TB and Malaria. In October, I was proud to be able to increase Ireland’s funding to the Global Fund for the next replenishment cycle by at least 50% This will bring Ireland’s funding to at least €50 million over the 2020-2022 Sixth Replenishment period.

But while the Global Community has made great strides in the fight against HIV/AIDS we have still not got to the bottom of this public health challenge.

Every day 5,000 people – men, women and children – become newly infected. Most of these people live in low income countries particularly in sub-Saharan Africa although many – too many – are also Irish. These are the people who do not get access to the necessary information, services and support they need to protect themselves and their families. Many tend to be the most vulnerable and marginalised in society and most at risk of infection.

We must, and will, do more to prevent and address gender-based violence in all its forms. In particular, we know gender-based violence can be a major barrier to accessing services, resulting in more women – especially young women – more likely to become infected with HIV.

The new Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima, in her speech at the launch of their annual report spoke of the need to support these women who are subjected to violence. She said ‘We need to speak up for these women, call for justice and an end to impunity. The world must be a safe space for all of us.’

We also need to talk about men and boys. When I visited South Africa in 2017, I was struck by the work the team at the Sonke Gender Justice Wellness and Outreach office in Cape Town were doing, and the importance of changing the attitudes of men and boys.

Women living with HIV, sex workers, transgender women and women who use drugs, often face multiple overlapping forms of gender discrimination, and are disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS. In order to realise our promise to reach the furthest behind first, we will work to ensure that these groups are targeted and included in our interventions.

Shortly we will hear from Father Michael Kelly who will implore us to do more for young women. I agree with him wholeheartedly on this. Young women aged between 15 and 24 are twice as likely to contract HIV as men of the same age. There are many reasons for this, including gender norms and cultural bias, which act to restrict a woman’s right to make her own decisions and, therefore, control over when, how and with whom she has sex, as well as her ability to protect her own sexual health.

We know that strong sexual and reproductive health services, which include the vital element of education on prevention, can prevent new HIV infections happening, while also helping those living with HIV to enjoy healthy lives. Access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services means increased HIV prevention and better access to treatment and care.

In the fight against this pandemic, Ireland is firm in our belief that education can make a significant difference. Through the partners we support, which include UNAIDS and UNESCO, our programmes focus on providing young people with the knowledge and information they need to protect themselves from HIV, including through keeping girls in school and supporting Comprehensive Sexuality Education.

Ireland invests significantly in Comprehensive Sexuality Education programmes in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Ethiopia. Through this support, we hope to enable young girls to protect their health, well-being and dignity. These programmes act as a catalyst to advance gender equality, and indeed the rights and empowerment of young people.

When you leave this evening I would ask each and every one of you to reflect on the fact that women and girls are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. Women continue to carry an unequal burden and are experiencing less possibilities to reach their full potential. This is gender injustice with tragic consequences.

But I also want to leave you tonight with two promises’.

Firstly, a promise that we will all continue to work together to ensure women are at the centre of Ireland’s efforts to ending this pandemic.

And secondly, on my part, I can promise that women and girls will continue to be at the heart of all aspects of our international development policy.

Thank you.

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