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2014 AIDS Conference

News, speeches and media

Address at the World YWCA Partner Breakfast Meeting


Speaker: Speech by The Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja (check against delivery)

YWCA Office, Melbourne

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, as well as Elders from other communities who may be here today.

I also acknowledge Anne Skjelmerud, Senior Adviser, NORAD (Norwegian aid), Marvel Spaine, YWCA of Sierra Leone and Lalchhuanzuali, YWCA of India.

Thank you to the World YWCA for hosting this breakfast, and for the opportunity to speak to such dedicated partners in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

I am always pleased to be involved with the YWCA: your goals resonate strongly with my own, such as developing women's leadership to find local solutions to global inequities.

This AIDS Conference is the premier gathering for those working in the field of HIV, as well as policy makers, persons living with HIV and other individuals committed to ending the pandemic.

This conference is a great opportunity to assess progress, evaluate recent scientific developments, take stock of lessons learnt, and collectively, chart a course forward.

I am conscious that this conference takes place against the backdrop of the Malaysian airlines tragedy. I pay tribute to the lives lost and especially those who were part of the global AIDS community.

I have always sought to be a strong advocate on the AIDS issue (including as a member of the Parliamentary AIDS working group) and am glad to have some related roles these days.

My husband Ian Smith and I are Ambassadors for ENUF, the anti-stigma campaign on HIV AIDS. And–for the past 7 years – I have been a non-executive Director of the Burnet Institute, one of the leading medical research institutes in our region, based in Melbourne, which focuses on public health issues including HIV, and maternal and child health.

I am proud of the integral role that Burnet researchers play in HIV research and prevention in Australia, and acknowledge the work of the

local co-chair of this conference, Professor Lewin, who is also Co-Head of the Burnet Institute Centre for Biomedical Research.

We are at a historic point in the AIDS response.

New HIV infections have declined globally by around 44 per cent since 2001 and AIDS deaths by 30 per cent since 2005. This is tremendous progress.

Advances in science and medicine have changed HIV from a death sentence to a chronic health condition, and scientists tell us a cure is in sight.

Yet, there are still an estimated 35.3 million people living with HIV, with around 5 million living in our region of Asia and the Pacific. And there are still outstanding issues such as access to medications, resources for research, education and understanding.

Worryingly, discrimination against people with HIV and key high risk populations remains an entrenched problem.

I hope this conference will continue to build momentum behind efforts to combat the spread of HIV, protect the rights of those living with AIDS, and eliminate the associated social stigma.

The fight against AIDS intersects closely with my work as the Ambassador for Women and Girls.

My role – like yours –is to champion women's human rights including access to sexual and reproductive health services.

We know that Investment in sexual and reproductive health services is not only beneficial for women and girls, but for the community at large.

Access to sexual and reproductive health services can result in:

  • lower maternal and child illness and deaths
  • greater education and economic opportunities for women
  • slowed population growth
  • planned and safely spaced pregnancies.

Critically, sexual and reproductive health services educate women about the spread and treatment of STIs. The majority of HIV cases–about 85%–are sexually transmitted. Educating women empowers them to protect themselves and their partners against STIs and to help combat the spread of HIV.

Combining Sexual Health and Family Planning with HIV services can increase the access to and use of HIV services. It can help to reduce HIV-related stigma and discrimination, and can increase coverage of HIV diagnosis and treatment to under-served and vulnerable populations.

Australia recognises that empowering women and girls is a key tool for development in our region. We remain committed to playing our part to end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat.

The empowerment of women and girls in our region is one of the nation's six priority areas.

A new target has been set requiring that at least 80 per cent of aid investments, regardless of their objectives, will effectively address gender issues in their implementation.

Promoting the interests of women and girls is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Women have been shown to spend extra income promoting the health, education and well-being of their families.

Increased numbers of women in government can lead to improved distribution of resources, and better maintenance of public infrastructure.

We know that no country–or community–can reach their full potential while drawing on the skills of only half the population.

As we near the end of the Millennium Development Goals, there are earnest discussions of what the post-2015 development agenda will look like – I know this is dear to the hearts of you at the YWCA.

Gender equality – and the empowerment of women and girls – must be a priority in the post-2015 development agenda.

The standalone goal on gender equality in the current MDGs has played a key role in increasing international support for gender equality and women's empowerment. It has highlighted that achieving equality between men and women is crucial to reducing poverty, and annual reporting on MDGs, including MDG3, has helped to demonstrate areas and regions where progress is being made and where greater efforts are needed.

Australia supports the consensus-building around gender equality as a standalone goal and mainstreamed across other goals in the post-2015 agenda. We welcomed the growing support for this 'twin-track' approach to gender equality at CSW, particularly YWCA efforts.

NGOs are key partners for Australia in effectively delivering on the aid agenda and the post-2015 goals.

Australia values the wealth of expertise and experience that NGOs bring to the table, particularly in our fight against HIV and our efforts to promote women's empowerment.

Programs like World YWCA's Mobilising Young Women's Leadership and Advocacy in Asia and the Pacific – which is funded by the Australian Government – are building the capacity of young women to exercise leadership in their communities and advocate for their rights.

And what a pleasure to welcome some of the very impressive young women leaders attending this conference with the support of this program: Sylvia John from PNG, CZ from India and Sarah De Soya from Sri Lanka.

I look forward to continuing this discussion over breakfast, and to hearing your experience with the juncture between empowering women and combatting HIV.

Last Updated: 24 July 2014
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