The editor-in-chief of the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, has joined calls for UNAIDS executive director, Michel Sidibé to be suspended after his controversial handling of sexual assault accusations. Dr Richard Horton said that the international Aids response “cannot afford to have UNAIDS in crisis” and that the credibility of the entire UN is under threat.
Health-e News reports that Sidibé has been under pressure from many quarters to step down because of his handling of a sexual assault investigation against his former deputy, Luiz Loures. Loures opted not to renew his contract recently. In November 2016, UNAIDS staff member Martina Brostrom accused Loures of sexually assaulting her in a lift, but in January 2017 – 14 months later – an internal investigation found that Brostrom’s claims were unsubstantiated.
Meanwhile, a second ex-UNAIDS member has made similar claims against Loures, while it was reported that Sidibé had been warned by other staff members that Loures was a “sexual predator”.
The report says in late March, UNAIDS country director for Ethiopia, Miriam Maluwa, who has worked for the UN for more than 25 years, was placed on administrative leave. She was a key witness in the Loures investigation.
UNAIDS recently announced that a new investigation will be conducted, this time by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, and will be complete by December 2018.
The report says civil society groups including South Africa’s Section27, Sonke Gender Justice and the Treatment Action Campaign have called on Sidibé to resign. They have also condemned Sidibé for attempting to bribe Brostrom with a promotion, allegations she has made publicly.
Meanwhile, 23 African women leaders in the HIV field recently wrote a letter to Sidibé, asking him to step down. One of the signatories, Vuyiseka Dubula, has since been vilified in social media for being an agent of “white men” with a vendetta against Sidibé – an apparent reference to AIDS Free World’s Stephen Lewis, who has been part of the campaign to get Sidibe to resign.
“My view is it’s impossible for Sidibé to continue as an effective director while this investigation takes place. I believe he should suspend himself,” said Horton, speaking at the launch of a sexual and reproductive health and rights report jointly released by The Lancet and the Guttmacher Institute. “If he doesn’t suspend himself the credibility of the entire organisation will be placed in jeopardy,” said Horton.
The report says the Lancet-Guttmacher report highlights the need for all nations to tackle gender-based violence so that the basic human rights of all women and girls are realised, especially in the context of sexual and reproductive health.
Prompted by a question by head of Section27 Mark Heywood, Horton said that as “authors of this report, if we cannot come out with clear (statements) in difficult instances like this then there is no point coming out with this report”.
The report notes that worldwide nearly one in three women experience gender-based violence “in the form of intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence”.
Meanwhile, Sidibé has completed a five-day visit to three countries in southern Africa – the mission included high-level political discussions, the launch of the Lesotho HIV Health and Situation Room and frank and an open dialogue with women activists about how to address sexual harassment and abuse.
Beginning in Lesotho, Sidibé attended the launch of the HIV Health and Situation Room with the deputy Prime Minister, Monyane Moleleki. Apecial guest Naomi Campbell was invited by UNAIDS to join the two-day country visit to learn more about the HIV response.
The Lesotho HIV and Health Situation Room shows real-time service delivery data, producing a comprehensive picture and understanding of Lesotho’s HIV epidemic. It enables quick feedback on results at the national and community levels and identifies bottlenecks in access to health-care services.
“The launch of the Lesotho HIV and Health Situation Room gives us access to data to shape impactful and efficient health programmes. These are the kind of innovations that will bring services to those who need them most and ensure that no one is left behind by the Aids response,” said Sidibé.
On the eve of the launch, Sidibé and Campbell visited the Queen II Hospital in Maseru and met with young women living with HIV and others affected by the epidemic. “I commend the government of Lesotho and its partners for the progress made in the Aids response. But the work is far from done. The reality is that we are not reaching adolescent girls and young women. I leave Lesotho today empowered, inspired, encouraged and determined to do all I can to highlight this critical issue,” said Campbell.
In South Africa, Sidibé addressed the Pan African Parliament and underlined the importance of integrated health approaches that were people centred. He urged parliamentarians to commit more domestic funding for health services to increase the sustainability of the Aids response and to put in place more preventative measures to improve people’s health. In addition, he called for laws to protect women and vulnerable groups.
Sidibé left the parliamentary session to meet civil society activists concerned by UNAIDS response to allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in the organisation. At a follow up meeting the next day, Sidibé and women activists met to discuss their concerns.
Sidibé agreed with activists to issue a statement following the meeting. The statement begins: “During my recent visit to South Africa, I listened carefully to you, I heard you. The HIV epidemic is inextricably linked to sexual and gender-based violence and the two can never be separated. We need the passion of advocates to move issues forward.”
During his visit to South Africa, Sidibé held separate meetings with President Cyril Ramophosa, deputy President and SANAC chair, David Mabuza, and the Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi. They discussed plans to increase the number of people on treatment by 2m by 2020 and the need to empower local and provincial authorities to bring treatment and prevention services closer to vulnerable communities.
The last leg of Sidibé’s visit saw him arrive in Lusaka, Zambia, to confer the 2018 UNAIDS Leadership Award upon Dr Kenneth Kaunda for his efforts in strengthening the Aids response.