Global Fund work falling short on gender-related issues

The Global Fund's efforts to put women and girls at the center of its work on HIV, TB and malaria have yet to bear significant fruit at the country level, according to the ATHENA Network.

The Global Fund’s efforts to put women and girls at the center of its work on HIV, TB and malaria have yet to bear significant fruit at the country level, according to the ATHENA Network.

In an interview with Aidspan, Luisa Orza, director of programs for the network, said that there was still a critical disconnect in many of the concept notes presented to the Global Fund, between the narrative analysis of gender-related issues and actual programme prioritisation of activities focusing on women and girls. This is also having a financial impact as the budgeting of concept notes fail to demonstrate prioritising of gender-specific interventions. The Network has released a paper to delve deeper into these concerns.

The lack of prioritisation may be due in part to the roots of concept notes within the national strategic plans (NSP). As NSPs tend to be “quite bio-medical in approach” they can be weak in “preventing and addressing violence, and again where linkages are made between HIV and violence, there is often a failure to back these up with costed programs and budgets in the operational plan, or to include them in accountability frameworks,” Orza said.

Lack of women involved in decisions

Orza’s comments reflected some of the concerns flagged by the Technical Review Panel in its recent report, and the absence of a clear gender integration strategy in most concept notes already submitted.

The problem, according to Orza, is deep-seated, beginning with the composition of country coordinating mechanisms (CCM) in countries. While there are now representation requirements for women, this has not translated into women being more engaged in decision making. Furthermore, women are not as well-represented among the seats in CCMs reserved for key populations. This is particularly problematic for people living with the diseases.

Orza said: “A huge raft of issues pertaining to women living with HIV may be missed. There [in some CCMs] may only be one seat for key populations. If the person on that seat comes from the men-who-have-sex-with-men community, how are they going to speak to the issues affecting women who do sex work, or women who use drugs?”

Another problem stems from a lack of capacity. Orza said: “Just because a woman is a woman, it doesn’t mean she has a good understanding of ‘gender’ as a socio-structural determinant of well-being. So there is a need to ensure gender expertise among CCM members, be they men, women or transgender people, as well as representatives of women as women.”

Ensuring comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights

These representatives of women as women also need to be able to make a delineation between programmes focused on pregnant women and women who are not pregnant but still requiring access to health services. There has been so much rightful emphasis on prevention of transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their babies that sometimes women who are not actively childbearing are forgotten.

While Orza called the WHO’s four-pronged approach “more holistic” she said it still fell short of a “comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights agenda”. Yet in most concept notes submitted to the Global Fund, she noted that, to their detriment, most programmes were narrowly focused on Prong 3: prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV.

“These programmes can be astonishingly gender blind, even though it’s hard to imagine how, and with a push to achieve high targets in this area, women can be pushed into mandatory testing and treatment programs, even if they don’t feel ready to do so,” she said. “One of the implications of this is that you often see quite high rates of loss-to-follow-up among women who have been ‘forced’ to test, or start treatment for life before they are ready.”

In some countries, including Malawi and Uganda, this has translated into much higher rates of women defaulting on treatment – particularly among those women who begin treatment very soon after their positive diagnosis.

Another consequence of this rush to treatment has been a higher potential for domestic abuse among women who have been encouraged, or, as Orza firmly stated “pushed into disclosing their status to partners”.

“This can be a trigger for violence, and the fact of testing positive can result in them encountering all sorts of rights violations within maternal health services,” she said.

Addressing the gender imbalance

Some critical and immediate changes to how programmes are measured and evaluated will go a long way towards addressing the gender imbalance – beginning with the essential need for a disaggregation of data by sex.

Also important is a disaggregation of data by age to reveal trends and risk areas, particularly with respect to HIV data collection due to the disproportionate impact on young women of HIV infection. In sub-Saharan Africa, women aged 15 to 24 are three times more likely to acquire HIV than their male peers and there has been little research to unpack why this disparity is so pronounced.

The Global Fund is one among a number of technical agencies collaborating with civil society to find answers to these questions and address the gaps in gender integration in health programmes.

But while the Global Fund’s gender strategy was developed in 2008, it remains mostly unimplemented, lending a sense of urgency to the need to include a more focused, nuanced, actionable and funded gender plan of action in the next strategic plan.

“The current Global Fund strategy runs out this year, even though the operational plan for the gender strategy runs till 2017, and planning for the next institutional strategic plan is already underway,” Orza said. “It’s really important that addressing gender remains a priority in the next strategic plan.”

This story was first published by Aidspan.

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