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Fri Oct 11, 2013

UNAIDS says Afghanistan on track to reach gender equality by 2015

By Paula Donovan

You’ll be stunned to hear the latest news from UNAIDS if you’re a woman living in a country with a serious HIV epidemic. In fact, if you’re a woman or a man, living anywhere on earth, the news will shock you: gender inequality is almost a thing of the past. The world’s governments have just two more years to end discrimination against women and girls, but dozens are poised to make the deadline. And the surprise doesn’t stop there: Afghanistan is among them. Also on UNAIDS’ list, in case you’re so fed up with your own government’s treatment of women that you’re thinking of immigrating to a more progressive country, are Zimbabwe and Iran.

The news was released on September 23rd as part of this year’s Global Report: UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic 2013 – the UN’s annual, definitive, ‘data-driven’ summary of progress against HIV.

“One hundred of the 109 countries reporting in 2013,” state the authors, without explanation or irony, “indicated that elimination of gender inequalities is a national priority. However, only 52% of countries reported in 2013 that they were on track to eliminate gender inequalities.” Eliminate. Within the next 27 months.

Before you dismiss this as madness, know that UNAIDS has a method. At a special session of the UN General Assembly in 2011, every country in the world agreed to a “Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS”, committing themselves to reaching ten targets directly connected to the epidemic. Target number 7 was the elimination of inequality between men and women. Every government pledged that it would get that big job done by December 31, 2015, and UNAIDS was charged with keeping track of progress. “These are concrete and real targets that will bring hope to the 34 million people living with HIV and their families,” said Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, the day the clock started ticking.

Beyond this year’s announcement that many countries are right on the verge of achieving equality between the sexes, no further information was provided. That seemed odd. Weren’t people dying to know which 100 countries have made the elimination of gender inequality a top national priority? And wasn’t everyone especially eager to hear which 52 are within arm’s reach of that target?

Admittedly, my own curiosity was tinged with a little resentment, since I was sure that my country wouldn’t be among them. I had read UNDP’s Human Development Report 2013 earlier this year, so I already knew that the United States is only in 42nd place out of 148 countries ranked on the UN’s “Gender Inequality Index”: just 17% of ‘parliamentary’ seats are held by women; there are 21 pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births (versus 4 in Sweden); and the ratio of women to men in the labor market is 57-to-70.  And violence against women is out of control in the US: rough estimates—which are all we have—say that fewer than 20 per cent of rape victims feel safe reporting to authorities, not even 1/3 of reported cases ever make it to court, and a miniscule percentage of rapists actually go to prison. So that reality alone took the US out of contention. But elsewhere, UNAIDS was saying, 52 countries were on track to eliminate ‘gender-based abuse and violence’ by the year after next.

We emailed UNAIDS to find out just where things are going so well for women and girls. They sent an Excel spreadsheet listing 109 countries, and next to each, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response to three key questions: Is the elimination of gender inequality a national priority? Are you on track to reach the goal by 2015? And, has UNAIDS received official confirmation?

The picture wasn’t quite as rosy as the UNAIDS report claims: only 26 countries have submitted official validation that they’re nearly gender-equal. But even the smaller number didn’t seem to jive with what I thought I knew. So I cross-checked by going back to the UNDP Human Development Report (because, of course, all UN data ought to match.)

Here’s where UNAIDS’ 26 high-achievers fall on a scale of 1 to 148 in UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index: 

Afghanistan    147
Argentina       71
Bangladesh     111
Bhutan           92
Brazil             85
Cameroon      137
Chile              66
El Salvador     82
Georgia          81
Guatemala      114
Honduras       100
Iran               107
Kazakhstan      insufficient data
Lao DPR         100
Madagascar     insufficient data
Malaysia          42
Mauritania       139
Mauritius         70
Morocco          84
Niger              146
Nigeria            insufficient data
Seychelles        insufficient data
Sri Lanka         75
Tanzania         119
Zimbabwe       116

Clearly, there’s a disconnect.

If I didn’t know better, I’d wonder whom to trust in a situation like this: UNAIDS, which “brings together the resources of the UNAIDS Secretariat and 11 UN system organizations for coordinated and accountable [that’s right—accountable] efforts to unite the world against AIDS”, or UNDP, which happens to be one of those 11 ‘cosponsoring’ organizations?

But I do know better. And so should everyone involved in producing UNAIDS’ flagship annual report, every staff member in every one of the 11 UNAIDS cosponsoring organizations who is paid to know about and respond to HIV, and every journalist who filed a glowing story about the Global Report—not one of whom picked up on that…error. So I have three questions of my own:

Did anyone in the UN system actually read the report—right through to page 83, where that bogus “progress” was presented as fact?

If UNAIDS is so appallingly careless with information about an issue as important to the struggle against HIV as gender inequality, can we rely on any of its data?

And (in anticipation of the response UNAIDS would most likely offer in its own defense—that it’s not their fault, that they just report the answers they receive directly from governments), my last question is: Unless your plan was to deride the goal of eliminating gender inequality, why on earth would you bother to ask countries whether they’re on track to eliminate it by 2015, when every adult on earth knows the answer?