Dairy Cows, Fishing Boats and HIV
The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges, unambiguously, that "Gender inequalities are a key driver of the [HIV] epidemic in several ways." The inequalities plaguing women include gender-based violence, sexist gender norms, care-giving responsibilities and a lack of education and economic security. Although these gender inequalities are widely acknowledged, the WHO reported that in 2008, only 52% of countries reporting to the UN General Assembly had budgeted support for women-focused HIV/AIDS programs.
Callous disregard for women's needs persists even here in the U.S. and the time is ripe for American policymakers to learn from the examples of foreign leaders who recognize the value of supporting women. Consider the example of a dairy cooperative in Tanzania. Under the "Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB)" initiative, Faith, an HIV positive woman, was able to acquire dairy cows and greater financial independence by selling cow's milk. In addition to economic support, this program also incorporates entrepreneurial skills-building and HIV awareness activities. In this way, the program simultaneously addresses HIV and the socioeconomic conditions that drive the epidemic. The ripple out effect of supporting women is directly evident in Faith's experience -- with her new economic freedom, Faith funds her nieces' schooling, thereby reducing their risks for HIV infection.
Socioeconomic support for Kenyan women in the fish trade has seen similar success. Many women in the fishing community are incentivized to have sex with fishermen in order to get the best catch of the day. This system, known as "Jaboya," has been long associated with the community's 14.9% HIV rate, which is more than double the national average of 7.4%. One woman described her own conflict of interest, "You know you can get HIV ... but then you remember you have a family that needs to be provided for, and you say, let me die providing for them." The U.S. Peace Corps recently donated six boats to local women's groups and many women are now able to fish for themselves. By fishing for themselves, the women sever their economic dependence on men and therefore reduce their risk of contracting HIV.
These international initiatives attest to the vast potential of women-centered socioeconomic support to curb the HIV epidemic. Here, in the District of Columbia, policymakers might take a cue from their international counterparts and funnel greater resources toward supporting the holistic needs of D.C.'s women. About 1.7% of female residents in the District are living with HIV/AIDS and 90% of HIV positive women in D.C. are African American.
To be clear, dairy cows and fishing boats are of little use to D.C.'s HIV positive women. But, like their Tanzanian and Kenyan sisters, D.C.'s women need a robust socioeconomic support system in order to be financially independent. Such a support system must include housing, childcare services, healthcare, protection from violence and other avenues for financial independence.
The Women's Collective (TWC) is one of a few agencies in the District providing women-centered HIV support services. TWC's mission is to meet the self-defined needs of women, girls and their families living with or at-risk of HIV/AIDS, especially in communities of color. Routinely, these women acknowledge their need for opportunities to become financially independent.
By raising awareness about women's needs, TWC hopes to see local policymakers replicating the Tanzanian and Kenyan approaches and finally recognizing the worth of investing in D.C.'s women. Treating and preventing HIV demands more than mere condom access and medication. To be successful, the fight against HIV must acknowledge the importance of supporting women's socioeconomic needs.
Gender inequalities and HIV, World Health Organization (last visited January 5, 2012).
Dairy cooperative in Tanzania is helping rural women to help themselves, UNAIDS, April 11, 2011.
Kenya: Helping women to end sex-for-fish culture, PlusNews, December 19, 2011.
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