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Gender inequality and HIV/Aids in Africa
“For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” (An old African proverb speaks truth for the present condition of the continent as a whole).
“This epidemic unfortunately remains an epidemic of women.” Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS. There is increasing concern that sub-Saharan Africa is the region where more women are infected by HIV than men. 60% of people living with HIV infections in Africa are women. On average about eight out of every 100 Ugandan women are infected with HIV compared to five out of 100 Ugandan men. Vulnerability of women and girls to HIV infections cannot be explained by biological factors alone but gender inequalities that exist in African societies. At the end of 2011 it was estimated that out of the 34 million adults worldwide living with HIV/ AIDS, half are women.
In Africa, the HIV virus that causes Aids is transmitted through two major routes. The first, which accounts for 80% of the cases, is through unprotected sex between men and women. This is followed by HIV transmission from mother to child during pregnancy, labour and breastfeeding, which is responsible for about 20% of the cases. The responsibility of caring for AIDS patients and orphans is also an issue that has a greater effect on women. Many children continue to lose parents as a result of AIDS, and this has led to an escalating number of orphans and vulnerable children, with predictions that in 2010 there was approximately] 15.7 million children orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Children suffer long before their parents die, especially girls, who may be drawn out of school to look after sick parents, particularly their mothers.
Gender refers to differences in social roles and relations between men and women. Gender roles are learned through socialisation and vary widely amongst cultures. Gender roles are also affected by age, class, race, ethnicity and religion, as well as geographical, economic and political environments. The gender dimensions that are relevant to HIV/Aids include economic, legal, cultural, religious, political and sexual status of women. Some of the gender inequalities do not only increase vulnerability of women to HIV/Aids but also become factors that fuel the spread of the epidemic. Gender norms related to masculinity can encourage men to have more sexual partners and older men to have sexual relations with much younger women. African culture is generally male-dominated, with women accorded a lower status than men are. Men are brought up to believe that women are inferior and should be under their control and women are taught to over-respect men and act submissively towards them. The resulting unequal power relation between the sexes, particularly when negotiating sexual encounters, increases women’s vulnerability to HIV infection and accelerates the epidemic. Many women also lack economic power and feel they cannot risk losing their partners, and thus their source of financial support, by denying them sex or deciding to leave an abusive relationship. Moreover, the fact that most of African women are brought up to believe that only those who are married are the ones who have achieved some kind of status in society and their lives. So women will hold on to an abusive relationship for the sake of being seen as a married woman.
Another vital factor for this epidemic is violence against women, this includes physical, sexual and emotional and is experienced by up to 60% of women (ages 15-49 years) worldwide. Forced sex can contribute to HIV transmission due to tears and lacerations resulting from the use of force. Women who fear or experience violence lack the power to ask their partners to use condoms or refuse unprotected sex. Men often use violence in an attempt to maintain their status in society and prove that they are “real men” by keeping women under their control. South Africa, for example, where a woman has about a one in three chance of being raped in her lifetime, has among the highest sexual violence statistics in the world – with obvious implications for the spread of HIV/Aids. The genital injuries that result from forced sex increase the likelihood of HIV infection.
Women in Africa need protection and this can be done by addressing gender inequalities. Women need a fair share of treatment. We need to address the root cause of HIV transmission, protect the rights of girls and women and target activities that improve the status of girls and women by providing training, life skills and access to work. Education opportunities should be provided to girls to create awareness and increase HIV prevention methods, delay and have a choice in marriage, improve the status of women in society and achievement of autonomy. Poverty among women should be addressed by including women in poverty eradication programs. Furthermore, governments should institute legislation to protect women’s rights, access to resources, fair allocation of treatment, address violence and abuse against women, enforce legislation against Female Genital Mutilation and other actions to address the low status of women. There is a need for increased support of ‘beyond awareness’ initiatives that focus on skills development, community based health promotion, positive living, gender equity and universal access to prevention, care and treatment.
My Father has been the most important feminist in my life
I am one of three daughters my mother gave birth to. I am the second daughter and I was my mother’s second chance to give birth to a son. Before my birth my mother said to my father “If it’s a boy I want you to buy me a diamond ring.”
When my mother was pregnant with a third child it was her third chance to give birth to a son. She was desperate. A lot was riding on this.
My parents are from Bangladesh. They are the owners of several properties over there. When it comes to property law Bangladesh follows the Islamic Shariah law. Under Shariah law if my mother fails to give birth to a son then in my father’s absence their estate would be subject to claim by my male cousins, if my mother gives birth to a son their estate is safe and stays within the immediate family. A son who would secure the assets my mother and father worked so hard to earn and not leave it exposed to extended members of the family. The birth of a son would elevate my mother’s status in the family. She would have fulfilled her most prominent duty. She would have shown the world that she had what it took to create a son; especially my aunt, who was the proud mother of not one but two sons. My aunt would goad my mother.
“You have failed to give birth to a son, how shameful.” She would smirk.
My dad moved us back to England in time for the birth of our third sibling. The night when my mother went into labour I woke up to find my older sister crying.
“What’s the matter?” I asked rubbing the sleep of my eyes.
“Dad has gone to the hospital to be by mum’s side.” She was crying because she was scared. My sister was eleven at the time and I was seven. Not only were we home alone in the middle of the night we also faced the prospect of having a brother – a brother who would supersede us in the ‘pecking order’. My older sister and I vehemently didn’t want a brother. A brother would mean we would constantly be overlooked. We were already the failed attempts for a son so the actual presence of a son would mean our value as individuals and standing in the family would diminish even more.
“Let’s pray for a sister. It has to be a girl.” I was determined. My sister and I prayed, our conviction was infallible, if we wanted it bad enough we could will our mother’s womb to create a daughter. We prayed until we fell asleep.
It is rumoured that when my younger sister was born my mother refused to initially see her, she turned her face the other way. I imagine she felt haunted by further goading by my aunt, sitting there on the hospital bed as the English nurse felt puzzled by my mother’s reaction. I believe that rumour.
My mother in turn had suffered sexism all her life. She was the fifth daughter, the fifth attempt by my grandmother to give birth to a son. When they broke the news to my grandfather, who was waiting outside the birthing chamber in Faridpur, Bangladesh, in 1957 he was told “It’s not good news. It’s a girl.”
My grandfather was a kind man. He responded with relief and he said “That’s good news, not bad.”
My grandmother didn’t give up, she went onto give birth for a sixth time and this time she gave birth to a son. Not only was my mother a failed fifth attempt for a son, she also grew up under the shadow of a brother who was constantly spoilt by my grandmother and someone who grew up to be unkind, cruel and a bully.
My father rejected the Bengali societal prejudice against women and believed in equality for women. He wanted all the women in our family to be educated. He wasn’t a rich man, as an academic, he didn’t earn a lot of money but he always provided for his family. He didn’t just provide for his own children he also insisted that all the women in his extended family had enough provisions to study and access to education.
When my uncle couldn’t afford to send his daughters to school and my father financed their education and gave them a monthly allowance. They were never made to feel like a burden instead they were continuously praised for their academic achievements.
Whilst teaching at Dhaka University when a female student was being physically harassed by fellow male students my father intervened. The girl was being pinched from behind as she sat on her chair to listen to the lecture. The male students were in fits of giggles as they saw how much discomfort they were causing her. My dad peppered them with academic questions so as to embarrass them when they were unable to answer the intentionally harder-than-usual questions without exposing the female student which would encourage further harassment outside of the classroom.
When a tenant was subjecting his wife to daily beatings my father stepped in. He knew the wife didn’t have the option to leave, she was financially depended on him for her and their children’s survival. In Bangladesh social services are virtually non-existant and the police force are unreliable so she had no option available to her other than to stay with her abusive husband. Her family members didn’t care and turned a blind eye but my father didn’t. In all fairness on that occasion my mother stepped in as well. Together they gave him a strong message about how harmful domestic violence is and as landlords they would never accept domestic violence being committed under their roof.
Unlike my mother he never expressed disappointment at not having a son. He never said “Boys are boys, men are men. Men are better than women.”
Throughout my lifetime I witnessed my mother’s prejudices against women soften and change. She worked, she earnt, she accepted herself be equal to men. In my adult life I actually have intense conversation with my mother on women rights where we both agree discrimination in all forms should stop against women. She is very different from the woman I remember as a child, she doesn’t desperately ache for a son anymore. In fact it is my youngest sister who she dotes after the most.
When I was born my mother was presented with a beautiful ring with diamond and sapphire stones. It is the single most beautiful piece of jewellery I have ever seen.
So from the day I was born to the day I die my father will always be the most important feminist in my life.
Women’s Rights ARE Human Rights!
Girls carrying water at the Doro refugee camp in Maban, Upper Nile state in South Sudan. Female refugees and humanitarian agencies say that the risk of physical and sexual assault while collecting water or firewood is one of the gravest safety ad security concerns faced by female refugees. According to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, girls (under 18) are 32 percent of the entire Blue Nile refugee population registered in the four camps in Upper Nile state, South Sudan.
© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch
Great news from UNICEF!
Tetanus - one of the deadliest diseases a mother and newborn can face - has been eliminated in more than half of the 59 affected countries that UNICEF and partners targeted just 13 years ago.