FEMINIST INTERNATIONAL RADIO ENDEAVOUR FIRE
XI National AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, Holland
Sex and Trade in
pandemic reached Costa Rica by way of trade, not sex. Costa Rica is a
country known by many around the world for some basic characteristics
that makes it what I have called, a "species in extinction."
Costa Rica is unique in being a Third World
country without an army; a country with highly protective laws for “the
commons,” which in Costa Rica constitute not only the environment, but
telecommunications, water and electricity. Likewise, we are a
country with a human rights framework that has its basis in law, and a
country in which governmental policy ensures social services and
protection of natural resources. In addition, Costa Rica preserves and
treasures its democratic participation and strong system of interactive
The country’s decades-long history has persevered because all the factors above are so closely interconnected. Our forefathers and foremothers knew that a peaceful nation would not be possible without a strong social service system, without protecting the commons, and only with democratic participation. The entire civil society since has understood and continued to support these principles. For people to live peacefully, their fundamental needs must be met. However, Costa Ricans are at a turning point: If we allow global market trends to impose their logic on our country, we endorse the escalation of HIV/AIDS, among other things.
In 1985, barely two
years after the naming (some call it discovery) of the HIV virus by Luc
Montagner in the Pasteur Institute in France, the governmental health
system in Costa Rica detected the first cases of AIDS in the country: A
group of 26 hemophiliacs had received infected blood that had come
through the international humanitarian trade system. It was fed into a
universal health system that exists in the country since the 1948
liberal revolution, and that created the conditions that I described
above. That system has such quality control mechanisms that although
AIDS was almost unknown, the health system detected the impact in the
blood stream of the infected when they were being routinely tested for
any sign of hepatitis.
undetected, not yet named, the HIV virus reached the country by way of
the same mechanisms that we are presently challenging in Costa Rica
about the Central American Free Trade Agreements, known as CAFTA. “Free”
trade barriers that will only liberate corporations of the quality
controls that prevent them from dumping; patenting rights that will
limit the availability of generic medicines, the privatization of a
public health system that so far is still healthy but will receive a
sick blow when health and health insurance – also a universal public
service - in Costa Rica now, becomes a commodity.
Two years later in
1985, the first cases of HIV transmission via homosexual sexual activity
were detected and the following year, AIDS appeared in the population at
large. Today, AIDS spreads in Costa Rica at a rate of 128% per year.
According to a specialist in women’s health, Anna Arroba of the Association for Women’s Health in Costa Rica, the HIV/AIDS virus has a higher rate of growth among women, young and poor women. Up to to 1990, there were 21 cases of women with AIDS, which added up to 65 between 1991-5 and 153 in the period 1996-2000. Proportionally, the ratio was 13 men to 1 woman infected in 1993, which rose to 5 men to 1 woman in 1999.
The first HIV/AIDS
campaigns by the Costa Rican government in the early 1990s were not
preventive, nor about treatment. Instead, they triggered greater
persecution of gays, lesbians, transgendered and transexuals, as shown
by the escalation of raids that took place in GLBT NGOs and their social
spaces such as bars.
As a result, the
homosexual population organized for prevention and protection far faster
and better than any other, not only because of the way they were
affected by the virus, but because of how they were affected by
In the year 1997, after a long constitutional court case headed by the GLBT community, the Costa Rican Government finally adopted The General Law about Aids 7771 and its regulation, which made it an obligation of the Public Health System to provide medicines and treatment for people with AIDS.
Some of the achievements of those initiatives are the following: The criminalization of raids against lesbian and gay bars, their advocacy in the achievement of the special law (7771) about HIV/AIDS, the recognition of the first GLBT rights, the obligation of the health system to provide medicine free of charge to HIV/AIDS patients, the creation of social organizations to render visibility and struggle for rights, cultural change and exposure in mainstream media.
The UN organization
ONUSIDA, in its studies about Costa Rica and AIDS, recognizes “bad
sexual education” as the main obstacle to AIDS prevention.
To understand what
this means, the first step is to see in Costa Rica a direct link between
the rise of HIV/AIDS and fundamentalism. Way back in the late 90s, the
Government of Costa Rica had designed, published and was ready to
distribute throughout the universal education system a series of books
on sound sex education for elementary and high school levels. For the
first time in the history of the country, and due to feminist presence
in government, sexual education was to be taught in holistic terms,
including gender, health, biology and culture. The booklets were to be
an example for the region regarding a comprehensive approach to sex
However, the Catholic Church stepped in to halt the process of distribution of materials, and continues to do so today. Only god knows how many HIV cases could have been prevented among the escalating number of victims among young people who have not stopped having sex, but do not receive any education about it in the system.
Feminization of AIDS
Gender-based discrimination and violence against women also spreads HIV/AIDS. At the very beginning of feminist struggles against violence toward women and of gender-based discrimination, we said that these were “matters of life and death”. And today we can say the same about AIDS.
I already provided
some statistical data. Now I want to tell you about what women are
doing. Rosibel Zúñiga of the Asociación Mujeres PVVS
(Association of Women Living With AIDS) in Costa Rica since 1995, is a
woman, mother, and wife infected with HIV/AIDS. She believes that her
illness has restricted her life projects due to rejection by familiy,
discriminatin in work and exclusion from society.
organization is the first of its kind in
Costa Rica. They struggle to help women develop new forms of
livelihood through economic, health and other types of projects. A
membership of 35 women with AIDS creates small enterprises with women,
undertakes training in schools and communities and develops awareness
and advocacy for legal change.
Last October in
Panama, Costa Rican women AIDS activists took part in the First Latin
American & Caribbean Congress of Women, Girls and Adolescents Living
with HIV/AIDS, organized by the International Community of Women Living
with HIV/AIDS. (ICW). At the Congress, they joined the 1,000
women from Venezuela, Uruguay, Perú, Paraguay, Panamá, Nicaragua,
México, Honduras, Guatemala, República Dominicana, El Salvador, Ecuador,
Cuba, Colombia, Chile, Brasil, Bolivia, Belice, Barbados y Argentina.
In Panama, the women talked about the internationalization of the virus, of sexual and reproductive rights, of racism, of xenophobia and global movements facing HIV/AIDS policies and agenda.
AIDS and free trade
Combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic by advancing drugs and accessibility
is what I want to focus on last, both because of what is at stake in
Costa Rica, not to mention the rest of the world, but also because it is
the issue that is least talked about, yet one that will shape all
present and future policies.
In Costa Rica, 70% of
the HIV/AIDS treatment consists of generic medicines.
The cost will be higher if CAFTA is adopted, because the Chapter on
Property Rigths in the agreement will favor pharmaceutical companies.
In 1998, the United
States accounted for 39.6 percent of all global pharmaceutical sales,
and 13 out of 17 antiretroviral AIDS drugs were developed in U.S.-based
companies have legal protection to ban free or cheap medicine based on
drug patents. These have become a defining factor for access or denial
to the drug. Under the WTO rules, patents are protected for up to
20 years, creating decades of monopoly by U.S. pharmaceutical companies.
Since its recognition in the early 80’s, AIDS has taken the lives of millions worldwide. In 2006, UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) estimated that there were 39.5 million people living with HIV on the planet, and that approximately 2.9 million had died from AIDS. UNAIDS has also estimated that 95 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS are in developing countries.
Evidently what has been done about HIV/AIDS has not only not been enough, but it is not working!
AIDS education and
prevention strategies about all the ways we can get infected have not
been enough to control or mitigate the spread of the disease, and yet
they are necessary.
Sex education only
has not worked, yet is necessary for more than one illness in our
societies, including AIDS.
An end to
gender-based violence and discrimination against women has not worked,
yet is also needed to prevent HIV/AIDS and all kinds of deaths.
Secular States are
not very successful at remaining secular, yet separation of Church and
State is urgently needed in this and women’s rights cases.
rampant, yet it casts a shadow that obscures how all in society are
affected by discrimination based on difference and dichotomization of
sex and gender roles that we have created to humanity’s disadvantage…
and I mean all of us.
Social and civic
organizations have been devalued and even persecuted with the rise of
government policy and its links to fundamentalism, yet those very same
organizations are the ones that are pushing government to protect
Accepting and taking
an activist stance to implement the feminist principle that the
"personal is political" is urgent. When was the last time you were
tested for HIV? When was the last time you requested a test from a
sexual partner or a condom for that matter?
A shift in paradigm is also necessary. HIV/AIDS cannot be stopped with the same fragmented strategies as other illnesses. When was the last time you connected women’s rights to the struggles against neoliberalism?
 Frederick Harris, Charles R. Kennedy and Michael Lord, “Integrating Public Policy and Public Affairs in a Pharmaceutical Marketing Program: The AIDS Pandemic,” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing 23, no. 2 (2004): 132.
 Barnard, 163.
 Joint United Nations, “UNAIDS: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS,” UNAIDS http://www.unaids.org (accessed November 11, 2007).
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