|The Feminization of AIDS|
The Feminization of AIDS
The Soroptimist of the Americas magazine, April 2004
By Marielena Zuniga
She is from Mexico. Poverty forces her into domestic labor at age 13. One night she is raped by her employer’s drug-addicted son. But she is blamed for the attack and fired. Her family will not take her back and she is forced into commercial sex work. Today, at 14, she is HIV-positive.
She is from India. She is 18-years-old when she is raped by an older man. Forced to marry him, she lives with his family as is the custom in her country. She soon discovers he is HIV-positive and that he has infected her. But her husband’s family blames her, not him. He dies. They throw her out of the house. With no money, job or education, she is forced to survive in any way she can.
She is from Ethiopia. Drought and famine hit her rural village and her husband leaves to find work in one of the larger cities. He is not monogamous. During his visits home, he brings HIV with him. He dies. A widow after one year of marriage, she is in denial that she might be infected. She delays treatment. She, too, dies.
These women, and countless others like them, are the face of AIDS in today’s world. Far from the “gay white men’s disease of the ’80s,” HIV/AIDS is infecting and affecting women more than ever before. As the epidemic enters its third decade, women now account for half of the 42 million people living worldwide with HIV/AIDS. Of the 3.1 million people who died of AIDS in 2002, 1.2 million were women, according to a report by the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO).
What’s fueling the “feminization of AIDS?” Gender inequality, say experts. A host of cultural, legal and economic factors limit the control women have over their lives, their sexual relationships and the power to protect themselves from infection. Sadly, the majority of women are being infected by their husbands, making marriage one of the most dangerous places for women today.
In Argentina, for example, the infection rate between 1988 and 2001 changed from one woman for every 20 men to one woman for every three men, according to the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), a New York City-based group promoting the health and rights of girls and women worldwide.
And even though Brazil has been credited with developing a successful and internationally known program to fight HIV/AIDS, it still leaves much to be desired for women. In that country, the number of new AIDS cases among women rose a whopping 75 percent between 1994 and 1998, compared to a 10 percent increase among men.
Because relationships between men and women are often based on power, women have a hard time saying ‘no’ to unwanted or unsafe sex, says Stephanie Urdang, United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) advisor on Gender and HIV/AIDS. “From teens in America to teens in Africa, to women throughout different age groups…even when women know their partners have had sex with others and are in a high-risk category, women can’t assert or protect themselves,” she says.
AIDS, gender and poverty
“If the people who are the supporting actors in your life—the labor resources, your social world—are all tied into your husband’s family, you don’t have that kind of option to leave,” says Corinne Whitaker, senior program officer for the Africa program of the IWHC.
Without bargaining power, women can’t talk about whether they want sex, when they want sex or how they want to have sex, says Antigone Hodgins, North American representative of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS. “All the power is with the husband, and if they [the women] bring up a condom, they’re at risk for violence. They get blamed,” she says.
Blame, violence and discrimination—all are the cost for speaking up. A much-publicized story was that of Gugu Diamini, a young woman from Durban, South Africa, who was murdered by her neighbors after publicly disclosing her HIV status. And in Kenya, a group of HIV-positive women admitted hiding the news from their partners because they were afraid of being beaten or abandoned.
If a woman is abandoned, or is denied the right to own or inherit land or property, she spirals into destitution. This has enormous consequences says Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit working to improve the lives of women in poverty and advance their equality and human rights. “If a woman is left with no access to economic resources, employment or income, she is more likely to sell sex for money,” Dr. Rao Gupta says.
Sex work is often the only option for a woman who must feed her children. “Toward the end of the month, if there is no money to buy food [for her family], a woman will be involved in what is called ‘transactional sex work’ or ‘survival sex work,’” says Urdang of UNIFEM.
At a World AIDS briefing, a woman from Manila, the Philippines, summed up the dilemma of “survival sex” faced by so many women like herself. “AIDS might make me sick one day,” she says. “But if I don’t work my family would not eat and we would all be sick and die anyway.”
Young girls at higher risk
Says Whitaker, “The issues around sex cleansing are decisions not being made by a woman herself. It’s not a path she would choose…and part of the reason with HIV/AIDS we have to address the broader issues of women’s rights and status.”
In other parts of Africa, men believe that if they have sexual relations with a virgin they will be cured of AIDS. So infected men actively seek out young girls who are especially at risk. Today, the majority of new infections are among adolescent women, who have the least power, fewer rights and who often “do not have access to information and services to protect themselves,” says Whitaker.
Girls are vulnerable for a variety of reasons. For one, older men who have had multiple partners prefer sex with teenage girls. These girls are especially vulnerable because the walls of their vaginas are more prone to tearing, which provides an entry point for the virus. Young girls also exchange sex for money to pay for school and because they lack assertiveness skills, they don’t negotiate safe sex.
In South Asia, as in many other patriarchal societies, when girls marry they have little knowledge of sexuality, HIV or condoms. Their first task is to produce a son, so even if they had access to condoms, using them would be impossible. Many are physically immature and malnourished, according to the IWHC, and too often, especially if a husband drinks or is a violent person, sex is forced and injures the girl’s delicate tissues, making HIV even easier to transmit.
In addition, HIV/AIDS heavily impacts girls when they must drop out of school to help take care of the infected. She then loses the opportunity for learning how HIV is transmitted and getting the courage to say ‘no.’ And, she loses the opportunity for more sound economic employment in the future.”
Solutions amid suffering
“They are responsible for keeping their children safe,” she says, “and when they are ill and unable to do that, it has a significant impact on the outcomes of their children.” Facing a bleak future, AIDS orphans are likely to be malnourished and unschooled and at greater risk themselves for HIV-infection. Today, 14 million children have lost parents to AIDS.
In the midst of such overwhelming suffering, what is being done to help women? Some say a critical turning point was the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on AIDS in June 2001 when 189 countries signed a Declaration of Commitment acknowledging that "gender equality and the empowerment of women are fundamental elements in the reduction of the vulnerability of women and girls to HIV/AIDS."
In addition, governments, international agencies, NGOS, religious organizations and women themselves are taking action. One of the strongest efforts is toward education because “strong data” shows that secondary education for girls is negatively correlated with HIV. “The more education girls have, the less likely they are to be infected,” says Dr. Rao Gupta.
The education component is part of seven actions that ICRW calls “essential to empowering women.” These include, among others, increasing women’s access to economic assets; promoting zero tolerance for violence against women; intensifying the development and distribution of women-controlled prevention options; and supporting the needs of women caregivers.
Of the latter, Dr. Rao Gupta says, “Women are the caregivers, the nurses, the ones at home on the frontlines of providing support and care for those who are ill and infected with this disease. But they have absolutely no support. They don’t have full information of the risks they face, no gloves, no syringes, no clean water, not to mention no relief from the burden of care…what are the government-led systems doing that could help them?”
Whitaker of the IWHC says her organization works with women “to help them realize they have options in their lives.” They teach women that they have the right to make decisions and that they have “international agreements and movements within their own countries to support them in that…and to give them skills to negotiate encounters or get the resources they need,” she says.
Part of the IWHC’s efforts are through the Girls Power Initiative in Nigeria, which provides girls with factual information about sex, risk and use of clinical services, and teaches them healthy body image and self-esteem.
Finally, women themselves are organizing. The International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS was started at an international AIDS conference by a group of women who realized they were “outside of any dialogues happening,” says Hodgins. “There were very few voices of women at conferences,” she says.
Today, the group serves in an advocacy role at policy-making tables and government meetings, pushing the implementation of AIDS strategies that help women. “It’s important to remember that women have the solutions,” she explains. “We’re not just victims. I know women who are very brave and faced the stigma in their communities and in their lives and made a difference.”
“African leaders pointed it out,” she recalls, “and actually said to their peers, ‘Pay attention. We have paid a huge price for responding too late.’ What’s frightening is the amount of work that needs to be done with countries like India, to openly talk about this as a gender issue and getting mobilized into strong action.”
The AIDS epidemic is an emergency like the world has never known before, according to Dr. Rao Gupta, and it requires a response equal to that emergency. “And the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria is evidence that the world can respond,” she says. “It’s a first step in that direction. The Fund needs all the resources it has been asking for in order to avoid a huge social and economic disaster that is already playing out in many countries in Africa and can be averted in other countries. That requires action now.”
Marielena Zuniga is an award-winning freelance writer based in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. She is a frequent contributor to The Soroptimist of the Americas magazine.
This article was originally published in the April 2004 issue of The Soroptimist of the Americas magazine. Reprinted with permission. For more information, visit www.soroptimist.org.