Gender Violence and AIDS: The Effect on Women

Right now is a busy time in awareness raising. We are currently in the middle of the ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence’ (which kicked off on November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) and, as you may have seen, December 1st was the 24th World AIDS Day. Ending gender violence and the fight to stop the spread and find a cure for HIV and AIDS have been hot topics on the international health and development scene for awhile now; and the awareness raising only continues to grow as strides are being made to address the problems. But, since these two issues are at the forefront of our minds right now, let’s take a look at how they’re related and what we can do to help end both.

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HIV and AIDS affects women in unique ways: women are biologically more susceptible to contracting HIV; pregnant mothers can transmit the virus to their children during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding if ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) aren’t used to prevent transmission; women as victims of gender based violence are at higher risk of contracting HIV; gender power imbalances can affect a woman’s ability to negotiate condom use; and in some parts of the world dangerous, misguided superstitions persist that can threaten women and girls, such as the belief that having sex with a virgin will cure a man of HIV and AIDS (this is a small percentage of how girls become infected, but that does not take away from the fact that this does happen and this is how young girls have contracted HIV). Consider these stats:

  • HIV/ AIDS is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age (15-49 years) worldwide,
  • Worldwide women are over half of all people living with HIV/ AIDS,
  • Young women (15-24 years) have twice the prevalence rate of HIV as young men[1],
  • In 2009, roughly 1,000 babies were infected with HIV every day during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding,
  • Only an estimated 53% of pregnant women living with HIV in the developing world  in 2009 received ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) to prevent them from transmitting HIV to their babies[2].

Gender violence and HIV and AIDS are not mutually exclusive. You are never going to see the spread of HIV absent of any form of gender violence and you will never just see gender violence that doesn’t lead to the spread of HIV. The epidemic is too large and the two so deeply ingrained together. Unfortunately, the statistics on the gender based violence and HIV/ AIDS vary a lot, likely due to under-reporting  meaning that it can be hard to capture the true picture of the relationship between the two. However, the data we do have is concerning:

  • 6-47% of women worldwide report sexual assault by an intimate partner in their lifetime,
  • 7-48% of women and girls (10-24 years) report their first sexual encounter as being coerced[3],
  • Sexual abuse in childhood is closely associated with risky sexual behavior in adulthood, increasing lifetime risk of contracting HIV,
  • Fear of violence, even in a consensual relationship, can prevent a woman from refusing unwanted sex or insisting on condom use[4].

The takeaway is the same lesson we’re starting to hear repeated over and over: when women are disproportionately affected, the ramifications are felt by everyone. Children can become infected with HIV by their mothers before they are even born. Access to HIV testing and ARVs are crucial to preventing the spread of HIV to children, but unfortunately these options are not always available. Children with sick parents may have to drop out of school to care for said sick parents or their siblings, eliminating almost any chance for them to receive a full education and create a bright economic future for themselves. Children orphaned by the epidemic (because often both parents become infected and die) may have to rely on family members for care, a state system of care (if they live in a country with one), or face a possible future of poverty, homelessness and stigma. Think of all the lost potential productivity from sickness and death caused by HIV and AIDS, think of the lost potential of these children affected by it. It’s staggering to consider what is lost.

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There are so many organizations, large, medium and small, out there working to fight for the end of HIV and AIDS. UNAIDS, USAID, pretty much any UN department and programme, WHO, PAHO, et cetera. Practically any major health organization or any organization or nonprofit working on women’s health (unless specifically devoted to one health topic) deals in some way with the impact of HIV and AIDS on women because the problem is just that large and it is next to impossible to ignore it if one is focused on women’s health. Check out what is being doing in your area and see what your local health department, research institutes, hospitals and universities or local nonprofits are doing in your community to address HIV and AIDS, domestic and sexual violence, and women.

One last note: I know this is a blog devoted to women and girls, but let’s not forget that men are also affected by this epidemic and that they can also make an impact on reducing the spread of HIV, especially for women. Organizations like Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa are working to educate and empower men to practice safe sex, practice and promote gender equality, and prevent gender based violence all in the name of stopping the spread of HIV and AIDS. An epidemic like HIV and AIDS truly requires a multifaceted approach in which everyone is engaged in the fight.

Check out this video of Dr. Charlotte Watts, Research Director of STRIVE at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she leads up studies on how social norms and inequalities drive HIV. Dr. Watts spoke at the World AIDS Day Commemoration at the Commonwealth Secretariat on 30 November 2012 about  the importance of engaging with youth and women to an effective HIV response.

The first featured image is courtesy of USAID.

The second featured image is courtesy of RNW.

Video courtesy of Commonwealthtube on Youtube.

[1] amfAR Statistics: Women and HIV/AIDS http://www.amfar.org/about_hiv_and_aids/facts_and_stats/statistics__women_and_hiv_aids/

[2] UNICEF: Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV http://www.unicef.org/aids/index_preventionyoung.html

[3] WHO and the Global Coalition of Women and AIDS: Intimate Partner Violence and AIDS http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/pht/InfoBulletinIntimatePartnerViolenceFinal.pdf

[4] WHO: Violence against women and HIV/AIDS http://www.who.int/gender/violence/vawandhiv/en/

Women & Water

Women and water have a very unique relationship. It’s not something that’s very obvious unless you do your research on how the two are associated. In many parts of the world, especially developing countries, water plays a big role in women’s lives. Take a look at these figures on women and water:

  • On average, women and girls travel 10-15 kilometres per round trip to a water source;
  • Each day women and girls worldwide spend 152 million work hours collecting water for their families;
  • Women carry up to 15 litres of water per trip;
  • Surveys in 45 developing countries showed that women and girls were responsible for the collection of water for 76% of households;
  • Women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion hours each year walking to collect water.


For many households, the women and girls are responsible for the collection of water that will be used for cooking, cleaning, drinking, sanitation and hygiene. This would be simple if the houses were hooked up to accessible and clean water systems, but as the statistics above suggest, in many parts of the world this is not the case. For these women and girls, collecting water can be time consuming, arduous and dangerous. Economic productivity for an entire community is lost when females have to spend hours each day on water collection rather than work, education or politics. Often times girls are pulled from school so that they may contribute to the family by fetching the household water. Collecting water in itself is not only dangerous to women and girls in that they have to carry sizable amounts of water sometimes very long distances, but it also makes them easy targets for sexual and physical attacks.

It’s not just the act of collecting water that affects females more than males, it’s also the sanitation factor. Hygiene is particularly important to women when it comes to menstruation. In developing countries where adequate sanitation is lacking in schools, girls who have reached puberty have been removed from schools without proper sanitation facilities that cannot meet their hygienic needs. This not only affects the dignity of the girls, but also creates a gender imbalance. Water collection is often seen as “women’s work” with the connotation that it is a lesser job than the work men do. Add on the fact that girls receive less of an education because they are pulled out of school to either collect water or because they have hit puberty and therefore have less economic and political opportunities as a result, and you have inequality in these communities that places women at a disadvantage to men in society.


The Women for Water (W4W) campaign is an initiative created by the Global Water Challenge to empower one billion women to raise one billion dollars to fight the global water crisis. By focusing on sustainable social and economic development for women this campaign will bring clean water to hundreds of thousands of women around the world by facilitating water and sanitation projects at the local level with women’s participation, advocating women’s empowerment and equality, providing hygiene education and providing the necessary resources to reach these goals.

On December 5 from 1 to 2:30 PM (Eastern time), W4W is holding an online hour and a half webinar in which partnering organizations will present on their innovative solutions to women’s water issues on the ground and how they are impacting the lives of women and girls around the world. The event, chaired by Jaehyang So, Manager of the Water and Sanitation Program at the World Bank, will give you a chance to learn about the campaign and its work as well as give you the opportunity to ask questions about the campaign and partnering organizations. If you’re interested in learning more about these efforts to empower women, RSVP by November 28th to reeti.desai@getf.org.

To learn more about how organizations are working to improve women’s lives by focusing on water, sanitation, safety and hygiene check out these organizations: Global Women’s Water Initiative; Water.org; Lifewater International; and check out these organizations partnering on the W4W campaign: Water for People, Global Grassroots, Replenish Africa Initiative, and Support my School. Support their work by raising awareness about the water issues women face all over the world and attend the W4W webinar on December 5th to learn about what’s happening right now to improve the lives of women and girls!

The first featured image is courtesy of Water Encyclopedia.

The second featured image is courtesy of Blue Planet Project.

The third featured image is courtesy of Women for Water.

Virginity Testing: Violating the Rights of Women

Virginity testing. It just sounds bad, doesn’t it? Unpleasant, violating and humiliating. Just a few of the words that come to mind when I think about what it must be like to be subjected to a virginity test. You can probably guess what the whole point to the test it: to test to see if a woman or girl is still a virgin. Another way of looking at it is that it’s a test to see whether the female has had premarital sex.

Virginity testing is widely practiced throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and a few other African countries. Although virginity testing has been a practice for a long time, it received the most attention during the Arab Spring, when Egyptian women protesters reported being given the ‘virginity test’ against their will by military forces after being arrested for protesting against the Egyptian government. For many women living in these areas, it is just a part of life. The testing process is completely invasive and not at all reliable no matter what method is used (there are a few methods that are used, and even the method that checks to make sure the hymen is intact doesn’t take into account that hymens can break from things other than intercourse).

So, who gets to order these tests and why? It’s not the choice of the women receiving the test, that’s for sure. The test can be used against women in a number of ways. In Egypt, it was a form of intimidation by the government against female protesters. In South Africa, it is a response against the fear of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic and is also a threat to women who are found to be virgins as some believe, inaccurately, that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. In Iraq, men can even bring their new wives to court just by accusing her of not being a virgin. Failed tests, whether accurate or not, can lead to a woman being shunned by her family and stigmatized by society. These tests are particularly dangerous to women and girls given the high priority virginity has in Muslim society; sometimes leading to honor killings when a family believes that their unmarried female relative is no longer a virgin and thus has dishonored the family.

But, besides the fact that the test is flawed and invasive, the real issue is that virginity testing is a complete violation of women’s rights. While authorities who condone the practice say it is to help protect a woman’s purity, in reality it is just one more tactic used against women to keep them oppressed and unequal in the societies they live in. It is another tool that men and authorities can use to ensure that women do not have equal rights and have no control over their own bodies.

A clinic in Iraq where virginity testing takes place.

What can be done?

What can be done to help fight against virginity testing? Of course, one great way is to educate yourself on the issue and stay updated on news stories related to women being forced to receive the invasive practice. Raise awareness by telling your friends about it, share recent news stories related to virginity testing on your social media pages and blog. Find human rights based organizations, like ForceChange, to petition governments that use virginity testing to condemn the practice and promote better sex education.

I was a bit surprised when I was researching virginity testing to learn that there are not very many organizations out there working to raise awareness to end the practice. Maybe this is because the issue never really received much publicity prior to the Arab Spring, so there hasn’t been much mobilization behind it. Often organizations already working for women’s rights lump virginity testing in with violence against women. This is true, it is a form of violence against women and the work of these organizations to protect women’s rights are essential to the cause. But virginity testing is its own unique violation against women that deserves its own recognition. I hope that one day organizations fighting to end virginity testing will emerge and influence the lives of millions of women. Who knows? Maybe the person that starts one of these organizations will be you or someone you shared a story with about the dangers of virginity testing.

The first featured image is from REUTERS.

The second featured image is from AFP.