It was a funny old day. I woke up, checked the time and switched on my bedside radio to tune back into the world outside. I was due in court later, sitting on a jury in the trial of an 18 year old man accused of rape by his girlfriend. The alleged offence happened seven weeks after the birth of their baby. We jurors were due to retire before lunch time to consider our verdict. This would be an important day for everyone involved. Whatever I knew about the low level of convictions for rape or decades-long campaigns on themes like ‘No means no’ had no relevance now after five days of hearing detailed testimony, evidence and argument. All that mattered as we hung these young lives in the balance were the facts in this case, the stories everyone had told, which was to be believed, what had been proved, where justice might lie.
I was reflecting on the seriousness of the decision I was about to make when from the background rumble of radio talk came news that got me fully awake. The lead story was that the UK government was to make teaching on preventing violence in relationships compulsory for all children aged between five and 15 as part of a new policy. Research underpinning the strategy showed that a quarter of teenage girls suffer physical violence such as being slapped, punched or beaten by their boyfriends and a third of those in a relationship suffer an unwanted sexual act.
I headed off to court thinking about the young mother I’d heard give evidence a few days earlier with an even greater sense of responsibility than before. Ten hours later my day at court was over, the die had been cast, and I was in Portcullis House, the office building opposite Big Ben that houses Britain’s Members of Parliament, hearing powerful testimony about a particularly cruel aspect of violence against women– the risk it brings of exposure to HIV infection.
Sophia Forum a network of UK organisations and women that is part of the United Nations-coordinated Global Coalition on Women and Aids, has been running a series of events looking at HIV/AIDS in the context of different sectors of society – the business sector, the criminal justice sector, the health sector. But that night it was an issue that was in the spotlight, an issue that touches every sector and piles taboo upon taboo: the challenges for women of HIV and gender violence.
It is an issue that desperately needs bringing out into the open. Despite the commodification of women’s bodies, the prevalence of sexual imagery in public settings and the sexualisation of children, open, honest and frank discussion of sex remains taboo to a large extent, and discussion of sexual illness, sexually transmitted disease or sexual violence is even more taboo.
It is all the more remarkable then that the new UK strategy to combat violence against women that was leading the news bulletins that day fails to focus on it and that gender violence is omitted from the UK government’s National Strategy for Sexual Health and HIV.
This serious policy gap – with neither the strategy on gender violence nor that on sexual health dealing with the link between gender violence and HIV/AIDS – leaves the issue orphaned and suffering the same status as women struggling with the complex interplay of violence, illness, and taboo. It is no wonder that, as Alice Welbourn of Sophia Forum says, only 20 or 30 of the 30,000 women who are HIV positive in the UK are fully open about their positive status and that so little is known about the part that violence plays in the incidence and risk of HIV infection.
Sophia Forum’s event was well attended, mostly by people already well informed on HIV/AIDS. It was held in the heart of the UK’s policy- and law-making district. A key supporter, MP Christine McCafferty, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health was hosting it in the comfortable, well- appointed Attlee Room, a prime venue for lobbyists. Paintings of Tony Blair, David Cameron and other parliamentarians lined the corridor outside. The drug company Bristol-Myers Squibb funded the event; afterwards there was the usual wine, soft drinks and salty snacks. It would have been easy to imagine Sophia Forum packs a lot of punch in the corridors of power. Not so, says Alice. They don’t even have a full-time member of staff.
But some influential figures had turned up, including Professor Gamal Serour, President of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), who had travelled from Cairo, Egypt, to attend. FIGO echoes the growing concern that current HIV/AIDS strategies do not adequately address women’s needs at a time when the pandemic is becoming more and more feminised. This vitally important medical organisation explicitly acknowledges that women who suffer sexual violence face a higher risk of being exposed to the HIV virus, is campaigning for an end to gender-based violence, and, through its Committee for Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Rights, chaired by Professor Lesley Regan of the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College, London, issues ‘Guidelines For The Management of Sexual Violence’
So the link between gender violence and HIV/AIDS is becoming better understood but, with more than 25 million people dead from AIDS since 1981, the level of information available and programmes of action remain shockingly inadequate. Even knowing the true scale of the problem – the essential starting point for the analysis that supports policy making - is difficult. Krystle Lai, of the Naz Project London, told me after the meeting, ‘The prevalence rate in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham for HIV/AIDS in women is the highest in the UK, but there are very few statistics available on the role of gender violence. We have really got to start tackling these issues at the level of policy to make progress’.
I headed home with my free condoms and reams of reading material seeing the testimony of the young mother giving evidence in court in a new light. She had done one of the most difficult things any woman could do: spoken explicitly about her sexual life in front of a large group of strangers. The night of the incident, with the couple’s baby lying near by, a condom had been used but had it not we might never have heard about any impact on her health or any risks of infection she might have faced, for, as the speakers at the meeting had shown, the hinterland of acknowledging and dealing with the links between gender violence and HIV/AIDS is mostly unexplored and unmapped. Let’s hope Christine McCafferty’s committee and Sophia Forum, punching above its weight, can move quickly to ensure that this serious policy gap is bridged.