Being that March 10th is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the spotlight is currently being focused on woman-specific methods of treatment and prevention across the country. While this is an American event, it offers a good opportunity to think also of women across the world who are fighting against this virus, especially those living on the continent in which the front lines of this epidemiological war are located.
Out of more than 33 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide, women account for about 52%. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, the scales are tipping. There, 60% of those fighting against this disease are women and girls. Because of their biology, women are at a higher risk of contracting HIV in the first place. Circumstances in many parts of Africa are exacerbating this imbalance and making things especially difficult for those hoping to control the spread of the virus, as illustrated by the story of Mma Oganne.
Mma was a married mother of four when she tested for HIV. She did not even believe that the disease existed before she was diagnosed, let alone consider that she was at risk. Because she lived in rural Botswana, this may have been a result of a lack of education in the area. Another troubling possibility, however, is that she believed the theories of AIDS denialists such as former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who insist that HIV does not lead to AIDS and can be cured by home remedies such as lemon, garlic, and olive oil. Some others say that AIDS does not exist at all, or denounce life-saving antiretroviral drugs as poison and claim that they cause, rather than treat, AIDS.
When two of her children were consistently sickly and frail, Mma took them to a health clinic where all three of them tested positive. Her husband’s reaction to the news then added insult to injury; he told her that he was going to get tested and never came back home. Even more unfair is the fact that he was almost certainly the one to infect her. Mma’s husband is a mineworker, currently one of Africa’s populations at the highest risk of contracting HIV. Mineworkers often are away from home for long periods of time, sometimes in different countries altogether. Many of them have relationships with women living near the mines where they work and end up bringing STIs back home with them. This is likely the situation with Mma, who then passed the disease on to her children when they were born.
The bright spot in this story is that Mma was able to obtain antiretroviral drugs for her children. For many people, there is no clinic close enough to visit on a regular basis in order to obtain the medicine. For others, the medicine is available nearby, but they do not have the money to pay for it. At first, she refused to take the drugs for fear of alienating herself from the community. The stigma of having AIDS in much of Africa is so powerful that most refuse even to get tested to avoid suspicion. Once she saw the dramatic change in her children’s health, however, she rethought her decision.
Being HIV positive is enough to handle without such large societal problems making things worse. Issues like social stigma, lack of access to care, the spread of inaccurate information, and so many others are tying the hands of people trying to make things better in Africa. Big changes need to made in places like Botswana, especially for women like Mma, if the spread of HIV is ever going to be controlled. This is something to think about on Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day while people the world over are fighting to gain ground in the struggle against this disease.
The BLC would like to thank Rachel Corrado for her contribution to our blog, and her ongoing volunteer efforts to serve people living with HIV.
By Ariel Jastromb
This Wednesday, March 10th, is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The day is an important one because the face of HIV has evolved to include more women of all ethnicities, shapes and sizes. When HIV/AIDS was first discovered, it was thought that the disease afflicted only gay males. Today, women account for more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. More specifically, AIDS is the leading cause of death for Black women between the ages of 25-34 and the 5th leading cause of death for all women aged 35-44.
Of all the ways one can catch HIV, high-risk heterosexual contact was the source of 80% of newly diagnosed infections. This statistic points to a different challenge that women face. Their safety lies in the hands of their male partners. For example, some women may not insist on condom use because of the fear that they may be left by their partner or even physically abused
Such sexual inequality is a major issue and can be seen often in couples where the male is significantly older than the woman. In a Center for Disease Control study of urban high schools, more than one-third of women of color had their first sexual encounter with a partner that exceeded them in age. This unique struggle pertaining to relationship dynamics can render women helpless when it comes to protecting themselves from HIV infection.
Some women remain unaware of their risk because they assume their partner has always been loyal, has never used IV drugs and has only engaged in heterosexual sex. Men who have sex with other men might then transmit the disease to their female partners. Limited knowledge of HIV, a lower perception of risk, drug or alcohol use, and different interpretations of safer sex may also contribute.
Another example of sexual inequality can be seen in the case of non-injection drug abuse. To support their habit, women are more likely to sell or trade their bodies for sex. Substance abusing women are also more vulnerable to engage in high-risk sex while they are high or intoxicated.
In addition to sexual inequality in relationships, women are slightly less likely than men to receive prescriptions for the most effective HIV treatments. Financial inequality also plays a role in new HIV infections. Participants in the CDC study reported that they were more likely to engage in high-risk behavior due to financial dependence on a male.
So what’s a girl to do? The risks to females seem insurmountable. Knowledge is power and no matter how the cards are dealt, a woman has the right to protect herself from HIV. The CDC is also working to formulate a vaginal cream or gel to be applied before intercourse for protection for HIV.
To help in Massachusetts, CAB Health & Recovery Services, Inc., receives funding from the CDC for HIV risk-reduction counseling and prevention case management, as does WOMEN RISE (Risk Identification, Strategies, and Empowerment), an HIV prevention services program that engages women and their partners who are at very high risk for HIV infection, who are homeless and living in family shelters, or who are identified through street outreach.