For millions of people at risk of HIV infection, and those living with HIV/AIDS, the EU and its member states must continue to support life-saving projects and combat the aggressive conservative lobby against family planning, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Gabit John Baptist seemed to have little chance of reaching his 29th birthday. Like too many children across Sub-Saharan Africa, Gabit was born HIV-positive and lost his parents to AIDS when he was just 10 years old. Aside from the initial struggle over his diagnosis, thanks to the support and counselling he received to continue his HIV treatment he was able to follow his dream of becoming an industrial designer. He is now an advocate for young people living with HIV and works with youth groups, supported by the EU, and led by development organisation DSW in Uganda, encouraging young people to get tested for HIV to ensure early detection.
As we mark the World AIDS Day today, it is important to remember individuals like Gabit, who have been fortunate enough to get the support and care they need. We should acknowledge the role the EU has played in ensuring that HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. The EU has supported innovative approaches in the fight against the epidemic, such as combining HIV/AIDS treatment with sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services.
Joined-up thinking on HIV and sexual health
Until recently, this kind of joined-up approach to the virus has been sorely lacking. This has resulted in situations that are entirely avoidable, such as the one faced by Mpopi, a 33-year-old woman from Otse, Botswana. Diagnosed in 2007, Mpopi had to travel 80 km to reach the nearest HIV/AIDS treatment facility, a trip that required a driver, queuing for hours, and sleeping near the clinic. If Mpopi wanted to access a family planning consultation, she would have had to come back another day. This would have been financially draining, and above all, an increased health risk for Mpopi, and her family.
However, due to the financial support of the EU and its member states, things have begun to change. In 2011, the Botswana Family Welfare Association, member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), launched a SRH & HIV Linkages project with support of the EU, and the Swedish and Norwegian development cooperation agencies. The project allowed Mpopi to access both HIV/AIDS treatment and family planning methods. It is vital that such support continues. Research has shown that women who are aware of their HIV status are more likely to use condoms, which results in fewer unintended pregnancies and less HIV infections. Time and again, treatment for HIV/AIDS and for family planning services have been identified as among the most cost-effective interventions that donor countries can make in support of public health, which contributes to gender equality and economic growth in developing countries. From this perspective, investments in HIV/AIDS treatment and family planning services support all sustainable development goals.
Progress on HIV – but end not yet in sight
We have seen the immense progress made in the last 15 years as the world attempts to grapple with the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Even though we are not yet at the tipping point in the fight against the virus, there has never been as many people receiving the life-saving treatment. The incidence of new HIV infections has dropped by 35 percent since 2000. If we are to secure the gains made, now is the time to invest and support innovative, inclusive programmes that tackle the disease and the inadequate SRH support. Linking SRH and HIV/AIDS services is a crucial example of how development aid can be effectively allocated to achieve better and overarching goals.
Development assistance – threats on the horizon
Despite the high-minded rhetoric around the sustainable development goals (SDGs), EU member states’ financial commitments to official development assistance (ODA) are in danger of declining. Countries like Denmark and Finland, long-term supporters of development cooperation and SRH, have made considerable cuts to their development aid budgets. Sweden is also said to be considering the same.
We have also recently witnessed an increasingly aggressive opposition towards EU efforts in the area of family planning and SRH within the European Parliament. These opportunistic groups attempt to stifle the debate. Such campaigns risk lives of millions of people depending on information and education programmes that can protect them from HIV/AIDS.
The EU and its member states have a moral obligation to contribute to defeating HIV and AIDS, otherwise the hard-won progress might be lost. On this World AIDS Day, we call on Europe to honour its commitments to development aid, and to ensure the provision of life-changing services to every man, woman, and child worldwide.
Heidi Hautala (MEP, The Greens/EFA) and Sophie in ‘t Veld (MEP, ALDE), co-chairs of the European parliament working group on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and development (EPWG)