Empowering women essential in fighting HIV/AIDS
Kaieteur News – December 2, 2005
Yesterday, Guyana and the rest of the world observed World AIDS Day 2005 in the midst of compelling evidence that empowerment of women and girls has become essential to the success of the fight against the pandemic.
Within the last two decades, the nature of the HIV/ AIDS pandemic has changed appreciably. Health authorities worldwide now recognise that women and girls are disproportionately affected by the disease.
Systemic discrimination against females across the world has dramatically increased their risk of HIV infection in gender-specific ways. In particular, the vast majority of females are neither willing nor able to negotiate with males for safer sex practices.
The painful truth is: many females lack the capacity to defend themselves against the consequences of high-risk activities by males. They cannot negotiate effectively for safer sex because a diabolical mix of physiological, social and economic factors keeps them perpetually downtrodden and powerless.
This makes them especially susceptible to abuse, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as human trafficking. Being more vulnerable to sexual violence and coerced sex, they are disproportionately exposed to the HIV virus and their rate of infection has now overtaken that of males.
This inability to negotiate safer sex is compounded by a multiplicity of other factors that hinder women’s access to prevention methods and to treatment. One problem is: females worldwide tend to know less about HIV/AIDS than males and this usually translates into lower access to HIV prevention services. Also, HIV/AIDS prevention methods are usually male-controlled, such as the use of condoms. Further, their smaller incomes and access to finance tend to make them economically dependent on men and therefore without the recourses to acquire prevention and treatment.
To make matters worse, recent medical research indicates that females have a higher inherent risk of being infected with the HIV virus via heterosexual activity because of biological and physiological factors.
Semen contains higher levels of the HIV than vaginal fluids; therefore, during the exchange of body fluids in each sexual encounter females have a considerably higher risk than males of being infected. In addition, the vagina has a larger area of delicate tissue than the penis and is more susceptible to the sort of microscopic injuries through which the virus can enter the bloodstream.
Since there is now clear evidence that females are more at risk of HIV/AIDS infection than males, it follows that all national strategies, policies and programmes to fight the disease must acknowledge this and be designed accordingly.
In this scenario, the fight against HIV/AIDS cannot be fully effective unless it incorporates means of identifying and addressing the factors that make women particularly vulnerable to HIV infection. In this regard, it seems that women would significantly improve their chances of avoiding the disease if they could increase their negotiating power in sexual relations.
The initial focus of any drive to empower women and girls should be to lift more of them to a bargaining position in sexual relations in which they could say no to sex or insist on safe sex without risking life and limb or economic deprivation.
In Guyana and elsewhere, as long as females do not have the same rights and access to education, employment, finances and decision-making positions as men, they will continue to be infected by HIV/AIDS at increasingly higher rates and would become the main catalysts in the spread of the disease. As such, it is vitally important that local anti-AIDS campaigns should specifically target females.
This week, the Ministry of Health launched a Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) Campaign that will use advertisements, billboards, posters, brochures and television documentaries to fight HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases.
Hopefully, this and similar campaigns would adequately integrate communications crafted to accelerate the empowerment of women as a primary means of containing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic is now characterised by increasing infection of women driven by females’ disadvantaged position in society, so empowerment of women has become a medical issue as well as a social issue. Success in the battle against HIV/AIDS has become inextricably linked with the empowerment of women.
Therefore, ensuring women’s development, eliminating all forms of discrimination against females and facilitating women’s full attainment of all human rights is now essential to the reduction of the spread HIV/AIDS.