July 26, 2012 at 8:18 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
AIDS 2012: Laura Bush stresses women pivotal in fight against AIDS
Gay News, Washington Blade, HIV/AIDS

Former First Lady Laura Bush at AIDS 2012 (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Former First Lady Laura Bush stressed on Thursday that women continue to play a crucial role in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

“When you look around the world, you see that women are in the forefront of life changing progress,” she said during her speech at the International AIDS Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. “Women have been central in the fight against AIDS.”

Bush cited a woman with HIV whom she met with her husband, former President George W. Bush, in Africa last December that had been shunned by her family after her husband passed away. A faith-based organization subsequently taught her how to make purses from recycle materials. And she now supports her children and the family that had once ostracized her. “Her story is a powerful testament to why we must do more to promote the good health of women everywhere,” said the former First Lady. “The health of women affects families, communities and whole countries. Healthy mothers make healthy families.”

Bush also referenced her mother-in-law, former First Lady Barbara Bush, as someone who helped change attitudes about HIV in this country. She noted that the former First Lady held babies and hugged people with AIDS and met with families of those who had lost loved ones to the epidemic at a time when stigma against those with the virus was rampant. Barbara Bush also visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall.

“Her graceful example challenged all Americans to confront HIV/AIDS with care and compassion, rather than fear and judgment,” said Laura Bush.

She further categorized the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that her husband announced during his 2003 State of the Union address as a blueprint to fight other global epidemics. PEPFAR committed $15 billion over five years to fund HIV prevention efforts, anti-retroviral drugs for those living with the virus and programs for children orphaned by AIDS.

Laura Bush stressed that both she and her husband have seen “first-hand the devastating toll of AIDS” during several trips they made to Africa during and after his presidency. She further recalled a young girl wearing a lavender dress that she and her daughter Barbara met at a Botswanan pediatric clinic a few months after the then-president announced PEPFAR.

“This precious little child lay on an examining table so frail and sick; her mother’s last hope was to make her beautiful,” said Laura Bush, who visited the same facility three weeks ago. “Today with access to anti-retrovirals, that little girl would have another chance at life.”

Statistics continue to show that women and girls remain disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS.

UNAIDS noted that 1.3 million women and girls became HIV-positive last year. The agency further reported that 63 percent of those between 15-24 living with the virus are young women — and 60 percent of those with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women and girls.

Laura Bush noted that rates of cervical cancer are nearly five times higher among women with HIV. The George W. Bush Institute, PEPFAR, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and UNAIDS last September pledged at least $75 million over five years to fight cervical and breast cancer among those with the virus through the “Pink Ribbon, Red Ribbon” initiative that Zambian First Lady Christine Kaseba and other female African leaders have endorsed. The former First Lady said more than 14,000 Zambian women have received these screenings – and nearly 40 percent of them live with HIV. Nearly a third of them tested positive for pre-cancerous or cancerous cervical cells. Of those, more than 80 percent were able to receive immediate treatment.

“In our fight against AIDS, we’ve learned that any measure of success requires sustained leadership at every level,” said Laura Bush. “By working together, we can give hope to mothers and fathers, to sisters and brothers, to wives and husbands and sons and daughters so they and their families can live full and productive lives.”

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi also spoke about the need to end stigma against those with HIV.

“Our people need to understand what HIV really is. We need to understand that this is not something that we need to be afraid of, that people who have contracted HIV need not to be discriminated against, that they’re not a danger to society at large,” she told AIDS 2012 delegates in a videotaped message. “Once this message has gotten through, we will be able to base activities on the natural compassion of human beings and of course as the great majority of people in Burma are Buddhist, there’s a special emphasis on the value of compassion. Based on this and based on wide community education, I hope that we will be able to become one of those innovative societies where we approach a problem as human beings — as intelligent, caring human beings. In this way, we will be able to handle not just the issue of AIDS and new ideas, but issues related to those who are subjected to particular suffering and particular discrimination.”

CARE President Dr. Helene Gayle noted that Suu Kyi, who won a seat in the Burmese Parliament in April, delivered a video address at the 2000 International AIDS Conference in South Africa. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who remained under house arrest for the better part of two decades until late 2010, held her first public event after the country’s rulers released her at an HIV/AIDS center.

“This was a powerful message to her people and to those living with HIV that their champion was again free and was going to work hard to improve their situation,” said Gayle. “She is a global icon for democracy and human rights and she is also in her dignified and quiet way a powerful AIDS advocate.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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