On Woman’s Day (March 5), physician Dr. Mardge Cohen, who created one of the country’s first HIV/AIDS clinics at Cook County Hospital, spoke at Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., about the thousands of women she has cared for since 2004. An estimated 250,000 of them contracted HIV in 1994 during the horrific Rwandan genocide that gripped the country at the time, and that epidemic has had an impact on women all of the country’s women since.

Through projected slides, Dr. Cohen explained how, worldwide, there are an estimated 40 million people living with HIV, although nearly 27 million of them reside in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Cohen, the problem with obtaining treatment for HIV positive women of Rwanda is mostly aided through two clinics, which Cohen remains heavily involved with in that small country. Cohen describes it as “no larger than Maryland.” One of the clinics is located in downtown Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, with the other on the outskirts of Kigali. Patients are evaluated, counseled, and those eligible for antiretrovirals are started on therapy.

These clinics, which Cohen visits about three times a year (generally staying for three weeks at a time) and her own organization, WE-ACT (Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment) for HIV, provide food, counseling, funds for school uniforms and other necessities for women and their children who live in poverty.

“Access to antibiotics, child care and transportation to actually commute to the clinic are all huge issues we are trying to address,” said Cohen. “Many of the women we see were victims of the 1994 Rwanda genocides in which men, who were HIV infected, raped and pillaged women in this country to purposely infect them. It was one of the most shameful acts I’ve ever witnessed.”

Cohen says there are several factors at play that contribute to the steady rise in the rate of HIV cases in women in the last 10 years in the country.

They include gender-based violence against the women of the region, forced sex by men in marriage (which is readily accepted in many parts of Africa), poverty which simply prohibits many women from obtaining the needed resources to protect themselves, and, in the case of the Rwanda genocide victims, shame at having to relive those experiences again by explaining her exposure to the virus to a physician.

Cohen has several partners assisting her in aiding the effort to provide medicines and funds to run each clinic (each requires $18,000 per month to run and $5,000 a month to support voluntary counseling). The clinics see about 3,000 women and children annually.

They include the Ronald McDonald House charity and many private donors. “Chicago,” says Cohen, “is a very generous city by and large. We’ve been greatly aided in our efforts by our donors.”

Nevertheless, Cohen did use the forum to state that she feels the priorities of the United States should be “wondering why it takes $50 million to cover antiretrovirals, but we are spending $8-10 million monthly in Iraq. It makes no sense.”

The event was sponsored by the Oak Park Zonta Club, which has been in Oak Park since 1934 and was established as an international organization in 1919 to improve the advancement of women, socially and professionally.

Zonta’s president, Susan Barton, read an article about Dr. Cohen’s work in Rwanda in a newspaper two years ago and immediately contacted her to speak.

“I thought, here is a woman who is really making a difference in many people’s lives,” said Barton. “I was so honored to have her come and speak.”

Barton said the mostly startling thing she learned about the residents of Rwanda were the statistics on mortality.

“I was stunned to discover that the average life span was only 42,” said Barton. “It makes us realize how fortunate we are in America and how much we can still contribute to this cause.”

“What surprised me the most was how small a country Rwanda really is, yet how little has been done to provide reinforcements so that women and children can obtain antiretrovirals,” said Priscilla Mims, Zonta treasurer. “However, the situation can be fixed and is certainly salvageable.”

Will Zonta International, which has thus far not addressed the crisis in Rwanda directly, be forthcoming in aiding the effort in light of the efforts being made by Dr. Cohen?

“It will certainly be on the agenda to address at the next international conference next year in Australia,” said Mims.

Dr. Cohen is a native of New York, but has worked for 32 years as a physician at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and is a leader in local research on women and HIV.