03/08/2013 02:24 EST | Updated 05/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Women Still Need the F-Word

The theme for International Women's Day 2013 is "The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum" which at its heart, is a call to keep our voices loud throughout the year. This isn't always easy given that the F-word (read: Feminism) gets such a bad rep, but I think it's time for a fierce comeback.

2012 felt like the year of women and health.

From the 'War on Women' in the U.S. with multiple battles on birth control and abortion, to the international outcry sparked by the Delhi rape case in India, or to the dawn of VaginaGate, women were on the agenda. At a time when feminism is argued to be unnecessary because 'hey, we've come a long way', these issues served as critical reminders that we have much to achieve before women everywhere have the opportunity to realize their full potential.

This emphasis on women's health was echoed at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. where research and discussion on HIV and women, gender-based violence, reproductive justice and sex work were abundant. UNAIDS offers some useful statistics on women and HIV/AIDS:

• Globally, young women aged 15-24, are most vulnerable to HIV with infection rates twice as high as in young men, and accounting for 22% of all new HIV infections

• Women living with HIV are also more likely to experience violations of their sexual and reproductive rights

The UNAIDS strategy- 'Getting to Zero' which sets targets of "Zero new HIV infections Zero discrimination and Zero AIDS-related deaths" also outlines goals specifically geared towards women. These include 'Zero tolerance for Gender-Based Violence' or ensuring that the 'HIV-specific needs of women and girls are addressed in at least half of all national HIV responses.'

While I laud the focus on women and the goals that have been set, it's difficult to take them seriously when sex workers from countries outside the United States (mostly women) were denied entry to D.C. and unable to attend the conference itself. This is a good example of women being the subject of conversation but not having access to the driver's seat in international spaces.

Putting women at the helm of HIV and health based initiatives serves to challenge discrimination at its heart. Who better to identify the best solutions and interventions to an epidemic than the ones most affected by it? This is why the HIV/AIDS field is ripe with political movements that meaningfully engage People Living with HIV/AIDS and other populations most affected.

Gender-based discrimination is complex; it's present in our collective conscience and connected to class, race, stigma and other widespread ideas that cannot always be quantified. My experiences with community-based HIV/AIDS work has provided much opportunity to work with women's groups and gain from their valuable insights. As diverse as we are there are some recommendations for how we can begin addressing gender-based discrimination that resonate in most conversations.

1. Self-critique and Knowing our Words: Before we begin to eradicate discrimination, let's first learn to recognize where and how it lives. Doing this requires self-critique and accepting that we all discriminate on some level.

The way we contribute to conversations about women speaks volumes. Women's bodies and sexuality are never our own and often remain in the public domain- we are shamed for the sex we have or don't have and constantly told how to dress, how to smell, where to shave, wax, pluck and what kind of body is desirable.

What we say and do (or don't say and don't do) with our families, friends and peers carries weight. Sending positive and supportive messages to the women and men in our lives are important; they can alleviate shame, offer support and encourage us to care about ourselves and our bodies, preventing HIV and other STIs.

2. Including Men and Boys: Every time we host a workshop on HIV, safer sex or healthy sexuality, the question of how to include men and boys always comes up. The sad reality is that men hold a lot of power in women's lives and in our bedrooms and targeting sexual health programs to men is essential. Programs that teach respect and unpack masculinities can be crucial in countering gender inequities.

3. Informing and Using our Voice: On a systemic level, staying informed of the decisions around women's health made by our governments and leaders are vital. In Canada, cuts to the Women's Health Contribution Program will be made this year, as announced in 2012, reducing funding for relevant research on Aboriginal maternal health, women and addictions and the HPV vaccine. Staying informed better positions us to lend voice that can influence decisions.

The theme for International Women's Day 2013 is 'The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum" which at its heart, is a call to keep our voices loud throughout the year. This isn't always easy given that the F word (read: Feminism) gets such a bad rep, but I think it's time for a fierce comeback. Whether it's about policy or pop culture, taking action can mean anything from holding our leaders accountable to weighing in on sexism at the Oscars.

So keep talking, reflecting, sharing and participating. These conversations are exciting, they remind us that there is work to be done, that we can be part of solutions and that women everywhere are alive and kicking.

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