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HIV Risk Linked To Womens' Sexual Rights

Fall 1996

While a lack of respect for women's sexual and reproductive rights is a world-wide problem, HIV positive women suffer a clear violation of these rights in many societies, especially in developing countries.

Around the world, cultural and religious traditions have blocked broader recognition of issues related to gender and sexuality. Female genital mutilation, early and compulsory marriage of girl children, sexual exploitation, abuse and rape of girls and women, and the lack of any opportunity for may women to refuse unprotected sex all contribute to the high risk of HIV infection among women. And all represent clear violations of women's sexual rights.

Social Pressure

Latin America is a region where Catholicism is the dominant religion and abortion is illegal. Ironically, HIV+ women in this region suffer social pressure to interrupt their pregnancies by resorting to unsafe abortions, with the accompanying high risk of severe health problems or death. In many countries, as well, women living with HIV have no access to family planning services, and are sometimes obliged to undergo sterilization or other procedures that they do not freely choose.

Compulsory Testing

Compulsory HIV/AIDS testing of pregnant women is a common practice around the world, even in countries where compulsory testing is supposedly illegal. Often, the purpose of the test is to prevent risks to health workers, not to provide care to women and their babies. Pregnant women who are HIV+ may also be forced to undergo AZT treatment on the basis that it will prevent transmission of the virus to their unborn children. In some developing countries, drugs are often administered without adequate controls, in violation of established treatment protocols.

Women living with HIV face increased marginalization and stigma, particularly because their serological status raises doubts of suspicions related to their sexual behavior. They also suffer coercion and violence in the denial of their sexual and reproductive and economic rights. They are generally expected to interrupt their sex lives and forego childbearing to avoid transmitting the virus. In Africa and Asia, if they are married and their husbands die, they are likely to lose their properties and be abandoned by their families. In these regions, many widows are obliged to prostitute themselves and/or their children to survive.

Health Services

No effort to guarantee women's sexual and reproductive health will be complete without a comprehensive range of health services, including birth control counseling, access to contraceptives, and STD & AIDS prevention and treatment services which must be delivered in a way that eliminates discrimination of the basis of HIV status.

Yet, this basic standard might well be considered utopian at a time when both the quantity and quality of health services in poorer countries is woefully inadequate. Structural adjustment policies applied in most developing countries have led to significant reductions in health services in general, and in women's health care in particular.


Meanwhile, population policies generally lead to the violation of women's sexual and reproductive rights. In anti-natalist countries, family planning is promoted without adequate counseling, often with limited effort to ensure a free and informed choice among contraceptive methods. In natalist countries, meanwhile, women's reproductive rights are violated by a lack of family planning and legal abortion services. The common denominator is that women's reproductive choice becomes a contradiction in terms. Too often, as well, STD programs treat infected women as "vectors" of disease, rather than ill individuals who need treatment and care.

In the months and years ahead, all of these breaches of women's reproductive rights must receive the same critical attention as other flagrant human rights violations. There is no doubt that education and effective empowerment of women is one of the keys to slowing the transmission of HIV.

Mabel Bianco, MD is president of the Foundation for Studies and Research on Women (FEIM). Reprinted from The Daily Progress (JULY 8, '96)

Seduction Or Abuse?

Editors comment: At one session where a male doctor from Africa presented findings from a study in an area where a belief system exists that young girls must have sex by the age of 6 or 8 or they will not develop breasts, or walk correctly. This presenter repeatedly used the term "seduction" saying that it's traditional to seduce young girls. A woman from the audience (also from Africa) challenged him at the open microphone and asked why he did not call this "abuse" because indeed this is sexual abuse of girls. The doctor only remarked that he prefers to call it seduction. When the woman tried to reply, she was told by the panel moderator that there wasn't enough time to "debate" this issue.

If we can't talk about this at the International AIDS Conference, then where and when can we address such issues?

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This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.
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