As the AIDS pandemic goes through medical research and is aided by highly effective treatment interventions, the disease is becoming more and more chronic.
In the US, if someone is diagnosed HIV positive at the age of 20, and if ARV support is provided, their life expectancy is 72. This is a clear sign that AIDS is increasingly a challenge for the aged. Yet a lack of focus on old age groups in the HIV and AIDS response is constantly felt. Older women are the one who bear most of the burden of this neglect.
Help Age International and UNAIDS organized a special session at AIDS 2012 focusing on the issues of older women living with HIV. Women activists from Kenya and Ghana shared their experiences and detailed how older women are discriminated in AIDS diagnosis and treatment and how their social rights are completely taken away if diagnosed positive.
Stigma takes its toll on older women’s lives as many women’s families and communities disown them. The belief in communities is that HIV is for young people and that older people should not have HIV infection at all. As a result, older people are deprived of basic medical support. Many will experience stigma-related violence.
Speaking out at the session, one activist emphasised that older women have the right to a sexual life and to good health, just like everybody else. Most of the times, older women’s needs and vulnerabilities are not considered and discussed at all in HIV and AIDS plans. “Bringing this issue to table in itself is a big achievement of Help Age and UNAID”, said another activist.
The HIV epidemic is ageing. For example, in the US by 2015 over 50% of people receiving ART will be over 50 years of age and one out of every 10 receiving ART in Africa is above 50 years old. Despite this, older people have to suffer the neglect of policies and caregivers; older women in particular.
Older women living with HIV not only suffer with neglect, discrimination and stigma in communities, they also have to bear the burden of being a caregiver in the family. They are the grandmothers in their communities with a lot of responsibilities.
According to a UNAIDS speaker in the session, it is absolutely vital to look at older women’s issues in the end-the-epidemic campaign. The dream of zero new infections will not be attained unless older women are taken into the overall picture. There are existing resources and opportunities that need to be shared more judiciously.
Richard Blewit from Help Age International comments that it is deeply tragic that older women’s issues are not included in HIV policies and resources allocation. That there are priorities ahead of older people’s rights is not acceptable.