A United Nations high level taskforce on women, girls, gender equality and HIV for eastern and southern Africa has called for accelerated efforts in protecting the rights and well-being of women and girls in South Africa.
The taskforce concluded its one-week high-level political advocacy mission in South Africa on Saturday. The taskforce was in the country to conduct a mid-term review.
The Women, Children and People with Disabilities Department had invited the taskforce to do an independent assessment of South Africa, and to share its experiences on critical issues facing women and girls in the country, such as teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and sex work.
Members of the taskforce met with South Africa's political leadership, the United Nations in South Africa, civil society organisations and other stakeholders working on the HIV response.
They also held discussions with networks of women, people living with HIV, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities as part of their assessment process.
Reducing mother-to-child transmission
Kenyan Minister of Gender, Children and Social Development and leader of the delegation, Naomi Shaban, applauded the South African government for its efforts in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission.
"South Africa has done a commendable job in significantly reducing transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their new-borns, but more still needs to be done to keep mothers alive," Shaban said.
South Africa has seen a decrease in mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) from 3.5% in 2010 to 2.7% in 2011, and is well on its way to meeting the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV and Aids target of virtually eliminating MTCT by 2015.
South Africa has also developed a programme with four outcome areas: increasing life expectancy; addressing maternal mortality, dealing with tuberculosis and HIV; and strengthening the health care system.
The taskforce, however, noted that despite South Africa's progress in the HIV response, women and girls remained disproportionately affected by the epidemic, with young girls - particularly teenagers - still vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy and HIV infection.
'Keeping girls in school'
The Basic Education Department's General Household Survey 2010 indicated that 1% of female learners attending school fell pregnant in 2009/10, equating to approximately 89 390 girls.
UNAids regional director and a member of the taskforce, Sheila Tlou, said the prevention of unplanned pregnancies and HIV infection in young girls should be a major priority of the South African government.
"Keeping girls in school is the best thing we can do to reduce new infections among girls and women and help them to reach their potential," she said.
The taskforce noted how crimes of gender-based violence, including brutal hate crimes against the LGBTI community, and in particular the "corrective" rape of lesbians, created a climate of fear and drove communities underground, fuelling HIV infection.
Shaban commended Women, Children and People with Disabilities Minister Lulu Xingwana for initiating the National Council against Gender-Based Violence and urged her department to strengthen the council's capacity to fight gender-based violence as part of addressing HIV/Aids.
"Our collective conscience as a nation must refuse to accept that women and girls continue to perish from preventable diseases as a result of our failure to place gender equality and women's empowerment at the centre of our policies," Xingwana said.
The department's Deputy Minister, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, said the work done by the taskforce would help them to identify gaps and challenges, which would enable them to develop more effective intervention programmes.
"Any programme aimed at addressing gender-based violence and HIV prevention must target men. We have a responsibility to mobilise, educate and empower men and ensure that they are part of the solution," she said.