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Final Thoughts After Bangkok: Women, HIV and Gender-Based Violence

Fall 2004

At it's core, AIDS is essentially an issue of human rights and human security. A look at the demographics of those infected and it looks more and more like a disease fueled by sexism and racism superimposed on poverty. Over 90% of the more than 40 million people living with HIV are from developing countries. A look at the hardest hit communities only buttresses sentiments of sexism and racism as engines spreading the disease and exacerbating the poverty. The hardest hit communities around the world are not rich, nor of western European descent, nor male. The war on AIDS is as much a struggle about reducing the inequities between women and men, rich and poor, young and old as it is a scientific struggle against a virus.

With all the social, economic, military and political chaos left in the wake of the HIV pandemic, it remains nearly impossible to persuade governments that view terrorism, quite correctly, as a threat to basic human rights and security, that AIDS is an equal threat. Unfortunately, when it comes to AIDS, our political leaders, who are mostly men in power, are failing in most countries around the world, year after year after year. The failings of these political leaders are most profoundly demonstrated in the increased vulnerability of women to HIV.

At the XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok there was significant focus on the greater vulnerability of women, particularly young women, to HIV disease. Evidence of their greater risk is demonstrated by the ever increasing body count of infected women nearly everywhere in the world one looks. This evidence didn't appear overnight. The numbers of infected women have been increasing in ever greater and disproportionate numbers for the last 20 years.

Worldwide women make up 48% of HIV cases and comprise 60% of infected youth between the ages of 17 and 24. In Africa, 58% of HIV cases are women and a staggering 75% of young people who are infected are women. When it comes to ever increasing numbers of women being infected even Wyoming mirrors global trends. The number of women infected in Wyoming has gone from 13% of HIV cases for the years 1989 through 1993 to 37% of cases for 1999 through 2003. Around the world, young people (15-24) make up 50% of the 8,000 new HIV infections occurring daily.

The one constant nurturing HIV over the years, while it has made women the soft targets of some twisted evolutionary vengeance, has been gender inequality. Around the world, women are coerced into early marriages. They face unwanted pregnancies. They are more vulnerable to other sexually transmitted diseases. They die in labor. They are the soft victims of domestic violence. They are denied property and inheritance rights. They have unequal access to health services, educational opportunities and work. They are held responsible for the disease by unfaithful husbands. They suffer sexual violence and rape.

While rape is used as a weapon and tool of war, the world barely notices and political leaders, mostly men, do nothing. In Rwanda, it is estimated that as many as 250,000 women experienced multiple episodes of rape during the 1994 genocide and as many as 67% were exposed to HIV. Today, in western Sudan, eastern Congo and northern Uganda thousands more women have been raped and episodes of rape, sexual cruelty and mutilation still occur. Women in Africa and elsewhere face these indignities daily, run the household, provide the food and raise the orphans. Their reward for a life of devotion, compassion and stoicism is only an early and agonizing death.

Around the world, between 20% and 50% of girls and young women report that their first sexual encounter was forced. While women are twice as likely as men to contract HIV from a one-time sexual encounter, they remain, for the most part, dependent on the cooperation of men to protect themselves. For women, living under clouds of social and economic abuse, domestic and sexual violence, the concept of "ABC" (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms) is not a realistic option.

Working with young people around abstinence is not an issue, but when abstinence becomes behavior that is judged as good, and other behaviors are judged as bad it becomes a donor ideology that doesn't match the realities of young people and particularly young women. Young people want accurate and complete information about their reproductive health in order to make informed choices. Attempts to regulate young people by offering abstinence only information is a disservice and does not offer young people alternatives to the realities they face in their lives.

Abstinence is not a choice for women raped in the ongoing conflict in northern Uganda. Unfaithful husbands have made "faithful women" a high risk group, and negotiating condom use is not an option in an environment of fear from domestic violence and economic abuse. Actually, women are, most often, victims of abuse and violence from men they know, husbands, fathers, relatives and neighbors. The problem with "ABC" is that it doesn't go far enough. If abstinence isn't possible, then be faithful, and if you can't do that, then use condoms. And if you can't use condoms, then why not address the issues of men's violence against women and gender inequality? It doesn't hold men responsible for their actions and it doesn't engage them as part of the solution. It doesn't partner men and women to eliminate men's violence against women.

It is men who inflict the violence and it is patriarchy that sustains gender inequality. Men's violence against women is rooted in gender inequality and in the way boys and young men learn to be men. Violence is not in a gene. It is learned and it occurs among the rich and the poor and people of every nationality, race and religion.

Men do not come into this world as violent human beings. They are born like the daughters of the world, as squalling infants, dependent on their mothers. They have to learn to use violence against women, children, other men and different races. They learn that to be a man one has to be strong, attractive, decisive, a provider, a leader, heterosexual, posses strong sexual prowess, and be willing to use violence as a tool to assert control, privilege and power.

Before "ABC" can have any relevance, men must recognize their individual and institutional abuse toward women, and become part of the solution to ending that violence and abuse. Children need to know that all forms of violence are unacceptable. Young boys need to know that it is not necessary to control or dominate others in order to be a man. Men need to be held accountable for criminal acts of domestic and sexual violence. Government leaders need to end and condemn the use of rape and sexual violence in war and provide treatment to women infected so they will not die without having the opportunity to testify before international courts. Men need to know that when they stand witness and do nothing; they are silent accessories to the individual and institutional violence they know exists.

Get Involved Links

The following links are not all inclusive but are offered as a starting point for action.

Men working to end men's violence against women:

The White Ribbon Campaign
365 Bloor Street East, Ste. 203
Toronto, Ontario M4W 3L4
Phone: 416-920-6684
Web site:

Women's Equity in Access to Care & Treatment for HIV A Global Initiative
3345 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Phone: 415-648-1728
Web site:

World AIDS Campaign 2004
Women, Girls, HIV and AIDS
Web site:

Back to the Fall 2004 issue of Positives for Positives.

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This article was provided by Wyoming: Positives for Positives. It is a part of the publication Positives for Positives.