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'AIDS has a woman's face'

Dec 10, 2008

A world structured on male dominance makes women more susceptible to HIV says Donald E. Messer, executive director of Center for the Church and Global AIDS. Outlawing all forms of gender violence, he urges for partnerships between sexes to reject patriarchal structures and relationships.

In the film "Brick Lane," a young girl in Bangladesh protests her arranged child marriage. She is reprimanded and told if God wanted a woman to ask questions, God would have created her as a man.

This year on the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day, however, the question must be asked: Is it inevitable fate or the will of God that women everywhere should suffer the greatest stigmatisation and discrimination because of HIV and AIDS?

If roles were reversed, men would not remain silent and passive. Men would not think they were simply destined to die, even though conditions could change if personal attitudes and political will were altered. We would rebel and fight for life against death, calling upon our sisters to join us in this revolution.

As a man I can never truly understand a woman's experiences of menstruation or pregnancy. I will never know the terror that my mother's milk might infect my baby with HIV.

But what if as a man I suddenly found myself as a woman in the age of AIDS?

Biologically, women are four times more susceptible than men to sexually transmitted diseases

First, I would worry about myself, my sisters, and my daughters. Biologically, culturally, economically and religiously, women are more susceptible to HIV. In today's world, AIDS has a woman's face.

Women total almost 50% of the 33.2 million HIV-positive persons worldwide. Of the infected, women comprise 61 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 40% in Asia, and 21% in the US. Only 33% of HIV-positive pregnant women receive treatment to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

Power to resist

Second, I would resent male dominance and resist cultural patriarchy prohibiting women from having control over their own bodies. Unable to say "no" to unwanted sexual relations and not being free to insist on using a condom, I would be subjected to a terrible risk. HIV particularly flourishes in female bodies. Biologically, women are four times more susceptible than men to sexually transmitted diseases.

Most women worldwide are infected by their husbands. An African woman says, "I use to worry about my unmarried daughters. Now I worry more about my married ones." In some countries the rates of HIV infection among married women are higher than those among unmarried, sexually active women.

Women are tossed out of their homes and engage in "survival sex" to provide food for their families

Third, as a woman I would live in fear of violence. Gender violence, including rape both outside and inside the bonds of marriage, contributes to the pandemic. With no alternatives, women sometimes internalise the acceptability of this brutality.

A survey in Zambia revealed 80% of the women believed being beaten by their husbands was an acceptable "form of chastisement." Sixty-one percent thought beatings were acceptable if they refused having sex with their husbands.

Fourth, if I were diagnosed as being HIV positive, my health care likely would not be of a quality equivalent to a man. Women suffer significantly higher rates of malnutrition than men. Women receive less education and earn less income.

AIDS widows in parts of Asia and Africa continue to be driven from their homes, deprived of land and inheritance rights. The number of AIDS orphans continues to escalate beyond 15 million.

Fifth as an HIV positive woman I would be stigmatized; blamed for my illness even though I was infected by my husband. Women are tossed out of their homes and engage in "survival sex" to provide food for their families. In a large AIDS hospital in India, I noted women with AIDS not only dying, but frequently dying alone.

Unless gender inequality is addressed, government efforts to curb the AIDS pandemic like Congress' recent authorisation of $48 billion to extend President George W. Bush's international AIDS program will be in vain. A major reversal of male attitudes and actions is imperative.

Education can change male behaviour and help women protect themselves

Number one, we men must confess our complicity in supporting gender inequality. At the recent religious pre-conference preceding the International AIDS summit in Mexico City this past summer, Lutheran Bishop Mark Hanson knelt and washed the feet of two women as a public act of repentance for the church's shaming and shunning of HIV positive persons around the world.

The South African and Mexican women earlier had shared their stories of gender violence, human trafficking, and mistreatment they had experienced by church communities.

Secondly, we must confront the unsafe sexual practices of men. Practices such as having multiple partners, engaging commercial sex workers, practicing cross-generational sex, and having coercive sex with virgins and others must be challenged.

It is inexcusable for males to refuse to use condoms when the health and well-being of persons are at risk. Research demonstrates sex workers in Tanzania more effectively protect themselves from HIV than housewives, because they have more power to insist on safer sexual practices.

Third, proactive educational programs must enlighten men of all ages about prevention and appropriate ways of treating their partners. Unacceptable and unconscionable machismo behaviour must be exposed.

Ignorance proves lethal. I have seen successful efforts to teach illiterate rickshaw pullers and lorry drivers in India to respect women and practice "safer sex." Neither easy nor inexpensive, education can change male behaviour and help women protect themselves.

Fourth, we men must champion the economic empowerment of the world's most impoverished women. Global poverty-reduction programs must remain a priority on President-elect Barack Obama's international agenda. AIDS causes poverty and poverty causes AIDS.

Most female commercial sex workers globally are engaged in "survival sex." Many have been sold or tricked into a kind of sexual slavery at a very young age. They have no other way to support their families.

These women need not more stigmatisation and discrimination, but programs that respect their human dignity, support their quest for health and safety, and provide opportunities for alternative employment.

Shun sexism

Fifth, we men must partner with women in rejecting patriarchal structures and relationships. Males typically have assumed power over women, especially wives, leading to devastating consequences for women and their health. Men, who refuse to be tested for HIV, or withhold knowledge of their status from their partners, contribute to the diminishment of female autonomy.

Contrary to theological claims that hierarchical ordering is "justified" by sacrificial male love and care, evidence everywhere suggests this is more myth than fact.

Men should lend our voices of advocacy to support the efforts of women to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS

Sixth, we men must join women in championing human rights legislation, condemning sexism, and working to implement laws that eradicate gender inequalities.

Women urgently require access to health care, including information about reproduction and sexuality. Needed are woman-controlled prevention devices such as female condoms and microbicides.

Legislation outlawing all forms of violence against women and girls, including child marriage, female genital mutilation, and marital rape, must be passed and enforced. Children must be cherished and protected, with special attention to AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children.

Seventh, we men should lend our voices of advocacy to support the efforts of women to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS. This must be reflected in our personal, marital, and societal roles and relationships.

Martin Luther King Jr. years ago declared that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." If we are co-conspirators contributing to gender inequity and injustice, the freedom of all people is imperilled and the health and well-being of all is threatened.

Unless we hear and heed the voices of women, all efforts to curb the HIV and AIDS pandemic will fail—no matter how much anti-retroviral medicine is distributed or how many World AIDS Days are observed.

The author is executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, Cololrado.

Source : Denver Post
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