The female factor

The female factor

By Linda-Gail Bekker, President of the International AIDS Society

Although women remain under-represented in many science fields, the history of HIV cannot be truly told without focusing on the critical contributions of women.

I have worked as a physician scientist in this field with a particular focus on addressing the needs of poor and vulnerable communities in sub-Saharan Africa for the past 25 years. Women’s critical role is one of many reasons why the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a special day for me personally.

Women’s scientific contributions in the HIV field go all the way back to the discovery of HIV. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi received the Nobel Prize in medicine, along with Luc Montagnier, for their 1983 report of the newly identified virus, now known as HIV. This discovery opened the door to HIV testing, to understanding of the pathogenesis of HIV infection, and eventually to the highly effective antiretroviral therapies now in widespread use.

As scientists, researchers and programme implementers, women have been at the forefront of the most important scientific advances in the HIV response, including prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission and the use of antiretroviral therapy for HIV prevention. Women have spearheaded research to develop microbicides and other female-controlled prevention methods. And women scientists have documented the strong associations between HIV infection and sexual- and gender-based violence.

Although it is impossible to name the many women who are playing key roles in scientific advancement, I’d like to share some specific examples of a few women who are at the forefront of HIV science across the globe.

In Africa, Agnes Binagwaho, as Rwanda’s Minister of Health, led the transformation of the country’s HIV programme and health system. Today, Rwanda appears on track to reach the 90-90-90 targets by 2020 and is a global leader in the quest for universal health coverage. Glenda Gray in South Africa chairs two of the pivotal HIV vaccine efficacy trials currently underway. As head of the National AIDS Control Council in Kenya, Nduku Kilonzo is helping lead a visionary HIV prevention effort.

Nittaya Phanuphak is a pioneer and champion of community-led prevention services in Thailand. Beatrice Grinsztejn of Brazil is a leading HIV scientist on HIV prevention and treatment issues and with respect to the epidemic’s impact on transgender communities.

In North America, Ambassador Deborah Birx is spearheading the world’s largest-ever bilateral assistance programme focused on a single disease – the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Wafaa El-Sadr’s contributions as an HIV scientific leader were recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her one of its prestigious “genius grants”.

The story of women’s scientific leadership on HIV builds on a legacy of women’s scientific contributions that extends much further back. In earlier generations, the work of scientific leaders, such as Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, created the earliest family planning programmes. Women led the early research on the links between illness and working conditions, giving rise to the field of occupational health. In the late 19th century, Marie Curie helped discover the radioactive element radium, which soon thereafter began being used for the treatment of cancer.

Women’s contributions to scientific advances in HIV and other public health challenges are important for several reasons. Scientific challenges as urgent as the search for an HIV cure or a preventive vaccine are too important to foreclose contributions by half of the world’s collective brain trust. But women’s scientific involvement serves another incredibly important purpose. In science, as in other fields, the involvement of women in leadership positions makes it more likely that women’s issues will be effectively addressed. With women representing more than half of all people living with HIV worldwide, we need women’s scientific leadership to ensure that the unique needs of and issues for women figure prominently in the HIV scientific agenda.

Mentored by Gilla Kaplan, my own career has greatly benefitted from generous recognition and exciting opportunities enabled by this strong TB researcher. As a mother, I have also seen first-hand how difficult it can be to balance the ability to grow in your career while building a family.
The gift of mutual respect, collaboration and collegiality from many wonderful colleagues worldwide has enabled me to use my voice and influence for those who have not been privy to the same support systems.

Supporting rather than punishing women who choose to mix career and family will strengthen workplace cohesion and productivity and ensure that we have a steady pipeline of women science leaders and colleagues. That means that we need to invest in a new generation of girls and women who can become the HIV scientific leaders of the future.

The International AIDS Society (IAS) is doing its part to ensure gender equality in our own programmes; in 2017, almost half the IAS fellows in the organization’s Towards an HIV Cure initiative were young women.

So while the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a moment to honour and celebrate women’s long history of scientific leadership, it should be more broadly recognized beyond a single day. Where we are in science today would not be possible without the female factor – the many courageous, committed women that inspire, innovate and build while nurturing the next generation.




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