To fight HIV-Aids, fight violence against women

Teboho Senthebane

Teboho Senthebane

For many young women protecting themselves from HIV-Aids is not a choice. As we mark both World Aids Day and 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, it's important to look at just how closely the two are linked.

If governments are serious in their fight against HIV-Aids, they must also deal with another worldwide "pandemic" - violence against women.

Women often confront circumstances that increase their risk of HIV infection in gender-specific ways.

Many women face sexual violence and coerced sex inside and outside marriage, as well as harmful traditional practices such as genital mutilation, early marriage and wife inheritance.

In Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, HIV prevalence rates still exceed 30percent among pregnant women.

In sub-Saharan Africa, three quarters of all 15- to 24-year-olds living with HIV are female.

In Lesotho 75percent of all new infections are among girls and 51 percent of young women aged between 15 and 24 are infected, compared to 23 percent of young men and boys.

Violence is a key factor in increasing young women's risk. Many studies suggest that the first sexual experience of a girl is often forced.

Socially women, especially young women, may be more vulnerable because they have difficulty negotiating protective sex because of power differentials.

Oppression of women has played an important role in the spread of the epidemic. Women's inability to refuse unwanted sex and demand condom use has contributed to HIV practices.

Joanne Csete, director of the HIV-Aids and human rights programme at Human Rights Watch, said: "Women and girls in Africa are dying by the millions, partly because their second-class status makes them vulnerable to violence and unsafe sex."

According to Yakin Ertürk, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women: "Factors associated with women's subordinate position increase the risk of HIV infection. Among them are: illiteracy and poverty, conflict situations, lack of sexual autonomy, rape . multiple sexual partners, trafficking for sexual exploitation, genital mutilation . prostitution and child marriage."

For many women their biggest risk is living with an HIV-positive partner.

Many women are scared to say no to sex or to insist on their partner using a condom. They are not able to talk to their partner about abstinence, faithfulness or condom use and don't know if their partner is doing things that put him and therefore themselves, at risk.

Women often have more difficulty accessing health care, because of lack of financial resources, lack of transportation, or the responsibility of caring for others, especially children.

UNAids executive director Peter Piot said: "Strategies to address gender inequalities are urgently needed if we want a realistic chance at turning back the epidemic."

lTeboho Senthebane is a freelance journalist. This article is from the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.