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.
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,
- 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.
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,
- 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.
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.
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.
 amfAR Statistics: Women and HIV/AIDS http://www.amfar.org/about_hiv_and_aids/facts_and_stats/statistics__women_and_hiv_aids/
 UNICEF: Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV http://www.unicef.org/aids/index_preventionyoung.html
 WHO and the Global Coalition of Women and AIDS: Intimate Partner Violence and AIDS http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/pht/InfoBulletinIntimatePartnerViolenceFinal.pdf
 WHO: Violence against women and HIV/AIDS http://www.who.int/gender/violence/vawandhiv/en/