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Feminism and HIV: Empowering​ women is the key to the HIV/AIDS crisis


Before I jump right into it, this issue has a fiery place in my heart because as a woman and a women’s rights activist, I find it unacceptable that women all around the world are still recieving second class healthcare and don’t have control over their own healthcare decisions. I hope that you begin reading this with an open mind and finish reading it with a passion to make some change.

The HIV/AIDS crisis was started around the 1980s and is still a huge issue globally. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV is a unique virus because it attacks your immune system. The immune system gives our bodies the ability to fight infections (Department of Health). AIDS is the final, most severe stage of HIV infection. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The feminist movement fights for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexual violence, and harassment, as well as many others (Wikipedia). The HIV/AIDS crisis is closely linked to the feminist movement because gender inequality is one of the major factors that affect the transmission and treatment of HIV and AIDS.

Gender inequality refers to unequal treatment or perceptions of individuals due to their gender (Wikipedia). Gender inequality often stems from gender roles within social and cultural norms. Gender roles determine how you’re supposed to speak and act. They affect personality traits such as women remaining polite and men acting self-confident, domestic behaviors such as wifely or motherly duties, and occupations such as assumptions that women are nurses and teachers while men are engineers and business owners (Planned Parenthood). Because these gender roles are so deeply rooted in our society they leave women vulnerable. Women and young girls continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV around the world. HIV is not only driven by gender inequality, but it also entrenches gender inequality, leaving women more vulnerable to its impact. Globally, young women are twice as likely to acquire HIV as their male counterparts (UNAIDS).

Globally, 30% of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime (WHO). Intimate partner violence in relationships often hinders a woman’s ability to negotiate condom use and STD status which would help protect herself from HIV. A study in South Africa shows that young women who experienced intimate partner violence and had high gender inequity in relationships had an increased incidence of HIV infection (The Lancet). The power imbalance between genders also means that many young women are unable to make decisions about their own lives. For example, more than 80% of married women age 15 to 19-year-old in Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Cameroon do not have the final say on their, healthcare (UNAIDS). This is extremely relevant because if a woman is in a violent marriage they have no ability to protect themselves from HIV without the consent of their husband who presumably gave them HIV.

All of these statistics get much worse in times of conflict or post-conflict such as war or relocation. Rape is often used as a weapon of war. In many cases, adolescent girls are abducted and used for sexual purposes by armed groups. For example, a survey of internally-displaced families living in three camps in Sierra Leone found that 9% of female respondents reported having been victims and survivors of sexual violence related to the war (ATHENA). Young girls abducted in wars were forced into sexual slavery as wives assigned to rebel commanders, where they suffered serial rape that resulted in pregnancy and an elevated risk of HIV infection for them. HIV can be passed from mother to fetus so if the mother is HIV positive the baby can be born HIV positive as well. As many as 47% of the Rwandan women were raped during the genocide which claimed millions of Rwandan people in the 1990’s (NCBI). Times of crisis leave women and girls even more vulnerable to infection.

Out of the 33 million children out of school in sub-Saharan Africa in 2012, 56% of them are girls (United Nations). Gender inequality in education is directly linked to lower access to sexual health services, including HIV testing and treatment. In Africa, the most effective interventions that reduce the risk of HIV infection among adolescent girls, are the ones that keep them in school. These include making education free for girls and rewards for parents who keep their daughters in school. A cash transfer programme in Malawi reduced the school dropout rate of girls by 35%. It also resulted in a 40% reduction in early marriages, a 30% reduction in teenage pregnancies and a 64% reduction in HIV risk within 18 months (Remme, Michelle). Education allows girls to gain better knowledge about HIV. It also lowers exposure to intimate partner violence and increases their chances of becoming financially secure and independent.

Poor women are often economically dependent on men. The need for economic support may contribute to the earlier marriage. These women may have no choice but to participate in transactional sex or sex with older men which are both activities that could put them at risk for infection (Pascoe, Sophie J. S). A 2015 study of young women in rural Zimbabwe found poorer women were more likely to have experienced earlier sexual debut; to have had more partners; partners who were six or more years older and to report having had sex for material or financial support (ATHENA). Poverty can also push girls into relationships with older men for the promise of money or gifts. Age-disparate sexual relationships between young women and older men are more likely to expose young women to unsafe sexual behaviors, low condom use and an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections.

The United Nations considers access to contraception a human right that is central to gender equality and women’s empowerment that saves lives and reduces poverty (United Nations Population Fund). Age-restrictive laws, such as those that ban contraception under a certain age, act as barriers to health care for young women (Global Coalition on Women and AIDS). In many places, discriminatory social and cultural norms are translated into laws which act as barriers to HIV services for women, increasing their vulnerability to HIV. In 29 countries women require the consent of a spouse/partner to access sexual and reproductive health services (UNAIDS). This law does not take into account that women should be in control of their own sexual and reproductive health and they should not need to rely on a partner in order to get services especially if there are not in a healthy relationship. Access to contraception allows women to make informed choices about their reproductive and sexual health, increases empowerment, and improves choices in education, careers, and participation in public life (Wikipedia). Sadly, worldwide 214 million women have no or limited access to contraception (WHO).

While it is improving, the HIV/AIDS crisis is far from over. As of 2017, AIDS-related illnesses remain the leading cause of death for women aged 30-49 and the third leading cause of death for women aged 15-29 (UNAIDS). As of 2017, 36.9 million people globally were living with HIV and 1.8 million people became newly infected (UNAIDS). Globally, women and young girls continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV. The feminist movement fights for women’s empowerment which includes sexual and reproductive rights that can help protect them from HIV.

This is a very complicated issue but if you take anything from the project, I hope you realize the importance of investing in women’s health care around the world. Women make up 3.73 billion (World Bank) people on this earth and they are the key to so many issues other than the HIV crisis. Improving the status of women is the way to continue to make progress. I hope this project serves as a call to action to women, men and everyone in between that women’s health should no longer be ignored. As one of the most influential and powerful women I know once said: “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.” —Michelle Obama

Feeling inspired? Check out some of the things these incredible women are saying and doing!

  1. Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook/Founder of “Leanin”/Author

“I want every little girl who is told she is bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills”

“In the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders”

2. Priyanka Chopra, Actress/ UN Goodwill Ambassador

“Don’t try and squeeze into a glass slipper. Instead, shatter the glass ceiling.”

“Feminism is actually just people, not just women, standing up for the fact that womens rights are human rights”

3. Maxine Waters, U.S Representative

“There’s this expectation for women that when we’re in public places we will be amenable”

“I am a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated and I will not be undermined.”

4. Malala Yousafzai, The Youngest Nobel Prize Laureate/Author

“If one man can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?”

“We cannot succeed when half of us are held back”

5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Author

“Of course I am not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who would be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in.”

“You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Your life belongs to you and you alone”

6. Emma Watson, Actress/ UN Goodwill Ambassador

“Women feel like they need permission…we need to lead and change that.”

“The strongest action for a woman is to love herself, be herself and sine among those who never believed she could.”

7. Angela Davis, Political Rights Activist/Author

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change…I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world..and you have to do it all the time”

8. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice

“Women belong in all places were decisions are made…it shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

“Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation”

9. Chrissy Teigan, Model/Actress

“I love having every right to be as outspoken as I am, as any man would be”

“Beauty is using the power of confidence to help others grow their own”

10. Michelle Obama, Former First Lady/Lawyer/Author

“As women, we must stand up for ourselves…for each other…for justice…for all”

“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half its citizens”

Please leave any comments, feelings or ideas down below. How do you think we can show leaders that women’s health is a priority?

Comment here!

Work Cited:

“Earlier and More Detailed Sex Education Needed in Africa.” Guttmacher Institute, 17 June 2013, www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2007/earlier-and-more-detailed-sex-education-needed-africa.

“Family Planning/Contraception.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 8 Feb. 2018, www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/family-planning-contraception.

“Family Planning.” United Nations Population Fund, www.unfpa.org/family-planning.

“Feminist Movement.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_movement.

“Gender Identity & Roles | Feminine Traits & Stereotypes.” Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood, www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/sexual-orientation-gender/gender-gender-identity/what-are-gender-roles-and-stereotypes.

“Gender Inequality and HIV.” AVERT, 21 Aug. 2018, www.avert.org/professionals/social-issues/gender-inequality.

“Gender Inequality.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_inequality.

“Global HIV & AIDS Statistics – 2018 Fact Sheet.” UNAIDS, 2018, www.unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet.

“HIV.” Department of Health, townofstratford.com/filestorage/1302/402/615/HIV.pdf.

“HIV/AIDS.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 July 2018, www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/gender/women/index.html.

“Intimate partner violence, relationship power inequity, and incidence of HIV infection in young women in South Africa: a cohort study” Jewkes, Rachel K et al. The Lancet, Volume 376, Issue 9734, 41 – 48

Kuwonu, Franck. “Millions of Girls Remain out of School | Africa Renewal Online.” United Nations, United Nations, Apr. 2015, www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/april-2015/millions-girls-remain-out-school.

Omare, Danvas, and Amar Kanekar. “Determinants of HIV/AIDS in Armed Conflict Populations.” Journal of Public Health in Africa, PAGEPress Publications, 1 Mar. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5345483/.

“Violence against Women.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 27 Nov. 2017, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women.

“Women’s Health.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_health.

“WHEN WOMEN LEAD CHANGE HAPPENS.” UNAIDS, 2017.

The Gap Report . 2014, files.unaids.org/en/media/unaids/contentassets/documents/unaidspublication/2014/UNAIDS_Gap_report_en.pdf.

Integrating Strategies to Address Gender-Based Violence and Engage Men and Boys as Partners to Advance Gender Equality through National Strategic Plans on HIV and AIDS. 2013, www.athenanetwork.org/assets/files/NSPs/web_WCA%20consultation_GBV%20and%20HIV-ENG.pdf.

Remme, Michelle, et al. “Financing Structural Interventions: Going beyond HIV-Only Value for Money Assessments.” AIDS (London, England), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 28 Jan. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24670525.

Pascoe, Sophie J. S., et al. “Poverty, Food Insufficiency and HIV Infection and Sexual Behaviour among Young Rural Zimbabwean Women.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 27 Jan. 2015

“Advancing Young Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Context of HIV.” The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, 2014, www.aidsdatahub.org/sites/default/files/publication/Advancing_young_women_sexual_and_reproductive_health_and_rights_in_the_context_of_HIV_2014.pdf.“Family Planning/Contraception.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 8 Feb. 2018, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/family-planning-contraception.

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COMMENTS: 5
  1. April 29, 2019 by Yasmina Haddad

    This project was extremely well done. Shining a light on issues society ordinarily avoids talking about is extremely important to foster change. Well done!

    • April 29, 2019 by Siena.Martin

      Thank you so much. I strongly believe that if we avoid talking about taboo topics, we can never make progress.

  2. April 30, 2019 by Kyong Pak

    Impressive work, Siena! You present this global crisis with deep knowledge and compassion. While the statistics are disheartening and horrifying, you counter the problem with viable, inspiring next steps. Really impactful work – this is a call to everyone, not just women, to be part of the change.

    • April 30, 2019 by Siena.Martin

      Thank you! I hope to inspire and spark some reaction to raise awareness but also to hold our leaders accountable.

  3. May 08, 2019 by Eugene Vann

    Thank you for sharing Siena. Sobering stats, but very important that we be aware to motivate us to take action. Definitely got my attention.

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