Gender based violence linked with reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS

Jessica Reed
22 October 2007

A lot of the breakout sessions organised by the Women Deliver conference focused on AIDS/HIV treatment and prevention for women and girls, and how it should be treated as an integral part of the fight for reproductive rights for all women, everywhere.

One of the most important and recurrent issues underlined by speakers is that the spread of HIV/AIDS is directly linked to gender based violence, especially in unstable regions where rape is used as a weapon of war, or where women have to sell their bodies as a means to survive and provide for their families. [more...]

It is only since 2004 that reproductive rights started to be articulated within the HIV lexicon (which was a breakthrough in terms of donors and fundraising for both fields). The benefits of linking Reproductive Rights and HIV/AIDS in the global political discourse are many: coverage of hard to reach parts of the population increases along with greater support, less stigma is attached to the patients' lives, access and uptake is improved.

During a session titled Meeting the Needs of Young Women and Girls: HIV prevention and its Links to Wider Action Naana Otoo-Oyortey (a technical support officer for International Planned Parenthood) talked at length about child marriage and HIV.

The UN's 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child defines child marriage as a union between anyone under the age of 18. Up to 51 million women between 15 and 19 years old are married worldwide - and sadly, statistics are undeniable: more young girls have HIV than boys, due to a high rate of in-marriage infections. The majority of sexually active married women between 15 and 19 years old tend to have higher HIV status than their sexually active unmarried peers. In rural India, 40 percent of girls below 18 are married, as opposed to 8 percent of boys.

More often than not, poverty and economic survival are crucial reasons to explain child marriages; parents sell their daughters to pay off debts or provide to their other children. These practices are even more prevalent where family and community norms prevail. As blogger Deepali Gaur Simgh states:

(...) for the millions of child brides in the continent, marriage is the vehicle that transports you into yet another zone of exploitation beyond redemption - due precisely to the protection marriage enjoys as a societal sanction.

This makes girls all the more vulnerable to gender based violence, and twice as physically vulnerable to HIV, especially in the cases where the girl is then sold to the sex trade industry. These issues need to be addressed by tackling the lack of economic opportunities, systematically outlawing gender based violences and implementing programs integrating young brides to educate them about their rights.

With these steps fundamental attitudes towards child marriage can be changed to slowly work towards the realisation of the Millenium Development Goals.

Related links: International Women Health Coalition's fact sheet about child marriage, the UNFPA's page about child marriage.

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