Gender-based violence and HIV: addressing twin epidemics

By Hajjarah Nagadya

Hajjarah Nagadya is a young woman living with HIV and a mother of one. She is a member of the International Community of Women Living with HIV in Eastern Africa, as well as the UNAIDS Dialogue Platform for Women Living with HIV.

Governments, NGOs and activists are currently gathered in New York for the 58th Session on the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which I am attending as a representative of the Link Up project. As a young woman living with HIV, I want to make sure that the issues that really affect women living with HIV are addressed.

Gender based violence (GBV) is a key driver of HIV transmission in sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 61% of people living with HIV are women. Women have become the face of HIV in the region, and GBV is a major factor fuelling this. Violence of all forms, particularly affecting vulnerable groups most at risk of the HIV epidemic  including young women, sex workers, and transgender women, must be addressed.

I have attended meetings and events at the CSW where GBV has been firmly on the agenda – and the links to HIV recognised. GBV is a huge issue. Nearly a third of women have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, and almost 40% of all the murders of women in the world are committed by partners.

Violence takes many forms, and occurs in many places. Women living with HIV experience violence in their homes, in society and in health facilities – where they experience judgments, stigma and even forced or coerced sterilization. In some cases women are not attended to while giving birth because of their HIV status, leading to increased number of maternal deaths. In many African countries women have no ownership of property, have no say about their bodies and do not attain the education they need – this is structural violence against women.

Women living with HIV are more vulnerable to violence, and violence makes women more vulnerable to HIV. Women who have experienced violence are up to three times more like to have HIV than those who have not. Violence also has a major impact on the health of women. Women who experience intimate partner violence are 16% more likely to have a low birth weight baby, 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV and 1.5 times more likely to acquire syphilis infections, chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Young women under the age of 24 are at particular risk. Country statistics compiled by the United Nations show that younger women in Africa are more likely to experience physical or sexual violence than older women, generally from an intimate partner.

Human rights declarations including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, re-affirmed in multiple international conventions and regional agreements, tell us that all human beings have the right to bodily integrity and to be free from violence. Yet women continue to be victims of violence both in their homes, in hospital and other settings.

I was so shocked to hear that in this CSW 2014, there are still countries that are not in support of sexual rights, on the grounds that it is linked to immorality. We need all rights for all women, if we are to make progress on ending GBV.

Laws that restrict rights or criminalize people are also violence by another name. I was privileged to present at an event co-hosted by the AIDS Legal Network, the ATHENA Network, the International Community of Women Living with HIV and AIDS (ICW) and Link Up partners among others, alongside other women living with HIV, where we discussed criminalization in Africa. The discussion included the many different forms of criminalization and how this links to violence, for example laws criminalizing homosexuality, such as the new law in Uganda, which perpetuate institutional violence.

To end gender-based violence, our governments need to come together, especially at this time when the post-2015 development agenda is being discussed, to push for an acceleration in gender equality and equity and empowerment of women and girls. It is imperative that they collectively address the structural drivers of HIV and inequity and eliminate violence against women and girls and other rights violations, in support of social justice.

Prevention strategies need to address the unequal power between men and women, and norms and practices that put women at a higher risk of exposure to HIV. There is a need to integrate HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes to meet the needs of women in all our diversity, including from key populations or most at risk groups.

Governments must invest in the capabilities of young women to engage meaningfully in public policy, and ensure all young people’s access to comprehensive sexuality education and services to make informed choices, and prevent HIV and sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies and sexual violence.

Policies and programs that address issues of violence should be fully monitored and women living with HIV should be at the centre stage of their implementation. Women need to be involved in all decisions on issues that impact on them and be fully engaged in all stages right from planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programs that address their issues.

Entry Comments

    • Mar 22
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    It is wonderful to know there are such strong young women like Hajjarah who are willing to speak out and advocate for governments to uphold the rights of all women, including sexual and reproductive rights for young women living with HIV. Thank you.

  1. Great blog Hajjarah.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  You mention Link Up partners and if readers would like to know more about this ambitious programme which aims to support the sexual health needs of young people affected by HIV in five countries in Africa and Asia, they can read more here

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