At the recent International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria
, an astonishing development in the campaign to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS was unveiled—a microbicide with the ability to reduce the risk of transmission of HIV
. This welcome development coincides with an intensified focus on women’s health and security needs among donors, especially the United States.
At the conference, the “Gender Programming and Practices: Practical Approaches with HIV and AIDS” session took an integrated approach, examining the links between gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS infection. Women are more vulnerable to gender-based violence and HIV infection than men, particularly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa where “girls and women aged 15 to 19 are three times more likely” to become infected with HIV than men in the same age group, according to the World Bank.
Michelle Moloney-Kitts, with the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, said that gender-based violence “affects not only public health, but [also] the ability of women and girls to contribute to developing their countries.” Since women play integral roles in supporting their families and communities in developing nations, their absence or weakened capacity due to HIV infection, injuries, or unwanted pregnancy can have larger repercussions for economic development and community health.
Deep Roots: Changing Minds About Gender-Based Violence
Elizabeth Mataka, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for AIDS in Africa, described the obstacles facing female victims of gender-based violence as “deep-rooted social, economic, legal, and cultural affairs” in their communities. Mataka asserted that “communities must be engaged” through a “change in mindset” in order to allow these women to “claim their basic human rights.” Scrutinizing the paucity of women’s organizations, she cited a “serious shortage of women’s leadership at the grassroots level” as a problem that must be overcome to empower and protect women.
Pamela Barnes, a co-leader of the Partnership to End Sexual Violence Against Girls, highlighted the extent of this “deep-rooted societal issue.” She pointed out that a 2007 Swaziland study found the most “common venue for sexual violence was…within the homes of the victims.”
Rui Bastos, representing Mozambique’s Ministry of Health, added that there is a pressing need to “change relationships between men and women,” and called for a shift in the current relationship dynamic to “give power to the women.” Noting the low number of men receiving HIV treatment, he called on men to “increase demand in treatment” in order to stem the spread of the disease.
Silent Voices: Talking About Sexual Violence Against Minors
Since the Swaziland survey found that “30 percent of the respondents indicated that they had experienced some form of sexual violence prior to the age of 15,” Barnes said greater efforts must be made to educate children about how to protect themselves from sexual violence. She added that efforts to protect children should also address other “risk factors for abuse [which] include lack of education, exposure to emotional abuse, and witnessing sexual assault.”
At a recent Wilson Center event on sexual violence against minors, Jama Gulaid of UNICEF Swaziland said that while talking about sexuality is not easy, “when you bring in violence it is even more difficult.” For that reason, Gulaid said, “you have to do two things—you have to share information and you have to present it in certain ways.” He explained that Swaziland was addressing the issue by relying on school-based interventions, which include trained community-child protection groups, toll-free telephone lines, case investigation services, and personal counseling.
Prevention First: Scaling Up to Stop Rape
While the new microbicide might help female victims of sexual violence avoid HIV infection, it will not stop the problem of gender-based violence. That is why Moloney-Kitts called on donors and NGOs to “scale up gender-based violence programs,” but in a way that goes beyond simply improving “post-rape care” and instead places greater emphasis on prevention efforts.
Not only would better rape prevention help reduce HIV and STD infection rates, but it would also help women avoid psychological damage and unwanted pregnancies—and, as Moloney-Kitts pointed out, improve economic development and enhance public health at the same time.
For more on gender-based violence, see these Wilson Center events:
Marie Hokenson is a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and an intern with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.
Photo Credit: “Congo Kivu Violences Panzi,” used courtesy of flickr user andré thiel.