Thursday, 2 August 2007

ICAAP8: Women, inheritance and HIV

August 20, 2007
By Syed Akbar
Colombo, Aug 19: Depriving women of their rightful access to inheritance and property deepens their vulnerabilities to HIV and hence urgent steps should be initiated by legislative and judicial systems to protect them.
The 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, which got off to a colourful start on Sunday evening in this picturesque capital city of Sri Lanka, expressed concern that neglect of women suffering from AIDS on property inheritance would have a devastating impact on the AIDS/HIV control programmes around the world.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksha inaugurated the five-day Congress being held at a crucial period when AIDS combined with tuberculosis and malaria is threatening to emerge as a major health nuisance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Earlier in the day, at the “Asia Pacific Court of Women on Inheritance and Property Rights: From Dispossession to Livelihoods,” organized by UNDP and Asian Women’s Human Rights Council, health and scientific experts felt that “there is a crucial link between women’s rights to housing, property and inheritance and the right to be protected from HIV.”
Discriminatory practices increase poverty, reduce livelihood options and reinforce inadequate housing, raising women’s risk to HIV and decreasing their ability to proper treatment and care.
The experts or the “Eminent Jury,” which comprised leading development practitioners, judges, human rights activists and community leaders, included Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing; Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane (Sri Lanka), Justice Kalyan Shrestha (Nepal), Cherie Honkala (United States) and Lawrence Liang (India).
After listening to the powerful testimonials by 24 women from nine countries on the denial of inheritance and property rights and their dispossessions by families and societies because of their HIV status, they said countries in the region needed to adopt specific legislation to protect basic human rights of people living with HIV including their rights to housing, properties and livelihoods.
The Court of Women is the first regional summit on the issue of inheritance and property rights of women in the context of HIV in Asia Pacific. It was a creative platform to give visibility to the lives and voices of those who are increasingly being pushed to the margins of societies and policy because of their HIV status and poor living conditions. More than 350 women from across the region, including a large number of women from Sri Lanka, participated.
The day was dominated by thought-provoking real life stories of women infected and impacted by HIV, narrated in first person, and informed analyses by “Expert Witnesses” in a unique format based on the feminist methodology of weaving together the personal with the political. The subjective testimonies of the “testifiers” were presented under four categories such as Poverty, Violence and HIV; Culture, Marginalisation and HIV; Evaluating State Responses; and Voices of Resistance and Hope. The objective realities came from the statements by Expert Witnesses.
In her testimony of betrayal, HIV, violation and finally, determination; Nguyen Thai Hai Yen, a young HIV positive widow from Vietnam said how powerless she had become at her husband’s house since his death in 2004.
The properties that belonged to him had been taken back by his father and she had been living the life of a bonded labourer. Though she had been asked to leave the house by her father in law, she had been fighting back by staying on. She, however, had to pay a price for her grit in the form of all her earnings. She said there were countless women who were in her condition. “Let’s care and act to protect the inheritance and property rights of women living with HIV because their rights are easily violated by their own people and community.”
Kamalamma from India narrated the inter-generational impact of the epidemic. After losing her daughter and grand-daughters, she is now struggling hard to keep her HIV positive grand daughter alive against discrimination, eviction from landlords and exclusion within family. The other testifiers from Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, PNG and South Africa also had similar stories to tell, stories of dispossession and disinheritance, sometimes even the access to their children, because of their HIV status.
The story of a widow from Sri Lanka was equally compelling and found resonance in the voices of several others. Upon the death of her husband, who committed suicide on knowing he was positive, her house was burned down by a mob led by her brother in law. From a happy and protected wife and mother, overnight she was thrown into sheer destitution. However, with the support of some civil society organizations and other people living with HIV, she had managed to gain her life back. “To reclaim my house,
which was legally registered in our name, I would need to go to the Court.
I would need legal support. Who is there to advise me? Who is there to take up my case? Who is there to deliver justice to me?” she asked.
Opening the Court, Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, leading civil rights activist in Sri Lanka said the strong inequality women face in the region was at the root of the problem of the denial of rights. She called for steps that could bring about fundamental changes so that the status of women in society is improved and their vulnerability to HIV is reduced.
Mr. Neil Buhne, UN Resident Coordinator, Sri Lanka, said women were being shunned exactly at the time when they needed help the most. Women were very important to the progress of the region and their protection would enhance it further, he said. Too many women were vulnerable to exploitative practices. In her address, Ms. Deborah Landey, Deputy Executive Director, UNAIDS, said the ability of women to access property was directly linked to their ability to protect themselves. HIV was
showing up the unequal status of women. There should be legislative measures to protect them, she added.
Ms. Caitlin Wiesen, Regional HIV/AIDS Team Leader, stressed the need to address the increasingly dangerous nexus between HIV and the inequalities in women’s access to inheritance and property rights to contain the spread of the epidemic. When women were denied their rights to property and inheritance, they were robbed of the social and economic empowerment needed to reduce vulnerability to HIV and cope with its impact on families and communities, she said. Access to these rights would empower women to cope with the multiple burdens of the epidemic.
Madhu Bhushan, Coordinator, AWHRC, India, ever since the first Court held in Lahore, Pakistan in 1992-93, the Women’s Court had moved across the world covering critical issues. The courts had also provided the perspectives of women on issues such as wars, racism, development, globalization and “fundamentalisation” of faiths.

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