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The feminization of HIV and AIDS

zohra moosa
1 December 2007
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Action Aid has launched a new campaign on women and HIV and AIDS called Invisible Women in order to ‘bring the crisis facing women into the spotlight.'

According to the organization:

  • Half of the 33 million people living with HIV and AIDS in the world are women.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, women constitute almost two-thirds of people living with HIV and AIDS.
  • Three quarters of young people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women.

It, like other organizations such as the UNAIDS Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, believes that the epidemic is increasingly being feminized. Or, to paraphrase former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, that the face of AIDS is a woman's. Indeed, in those areas of the world with the highest HIV prevalence UNFPA reports that ‘young women (ages 15 to 24) are up to six times more likely to be infected than young men their age.'

There seems to be a consensus that violence against women is one of the primary drivers of this feminization and the epidemic as a whole. WHO, John Hopkins, and UNIFEM (with its dedicated web portal on gender and HIV/AIDS) all have extensive resources on the links, explaining how:

Violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of HIV and AIDS (Reference)

Indeed, they are believed to be so interlinked that Amnesty International has suggested that the fight against the AIDS epidemic cannot be won without addressing the violence against women pandemic.

Violence against women increases their risk of HIV transmission, undermines their abilities to protect themselves from the risk, and inhibits them from accessing treatment once infected. For example, this fact sheet notes that:

Women in South Africa who are in relationships with violent or domineering men are 50 percent more likely to contract HIV than women not involved in abusive relationships.

The connection between violence against women and HIV/AIDS has been known since at least 2000 when this report (pdf) by the WHO and this one by UNDP came out. And yet in 2007 Action Aid is still launching a campaign on the issue targeting its invisibility. What is going on?

Read Susana T. Fried, Neelanjana Mukhia and Shamillah Wilson's article on how women's organizations can influence national and international AIDS agendas.

Also on openDemocracy is Luisa Orza and
Jennifer Gatsi Mallet's article on a groundbreaking project that brings together parliamentarians and HIV positive women in Namibia.

I think it is fair to say that the relative inaction on the part of governments in addressing the feminization of the epidemic is intimately related to most governments' failures to take the required steps to eliminate violence against women. Challenging violence against women requires a wholesale re-evaluation of how we understand gender relations, power dynamics and the causes of inequalities between women and men as Sarah Campbell discussed in relation to rape this past week. Violence against women is a direct result of the under-valuation of women, their rights, their integrity - the fact that the incidence is as high as it is suggests that this under-valuation is quite mainstream as Jon Collins revealed.

Governments with a real interest in eliminating violence against women would need to develop comprehensive integrated strategies (pdf) on the issue that cut across all departments and levels of governance, including providing sufficient resources to fund the work needed, launching public education campaigns that cut to the heart of perceptions about masculinity, femininity and human rights, and working directly with men.

For some, this agenda will seem too daunting, for others too revolutionary. As a basic interim measure, then, I would like to propose that governments use the test that Dr Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS, has recommended for all AIDS strategies in his Agenda for Action on Women and AIDS (pdf): ask whether it works for women.

Photo by kaerast, shared under a Creative Commons license

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