Chances are you know a woman who has survived physical or sexual assault. Perhaps that woman is you. Chances are also high that you or someone you know is living with HIV/AIDS.
This week the world commemorated Wednesday, December 1 as World AIDS Day. The 2005 theme, “Keep the Promise,” exhorts us to fulfill promises made by the 2001 UN General Assembly Special Session and its Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. The Declaration recognized many factors that perpetuate HIV/AIDS, including violence against women. The promises made in the Declaration included that by 2005 governments would develop and implement “national strategies for women’s empowerment” and support the elimination of “all forms of violence against women and girls.” But, have these promises been kept?
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that nearly one in three women will be coerced into sex or assaulted in her lifetime. Think about that: one in three. The UNAIDS Epidemic Report 2005 released last week indicates that between one third and one half of women in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Namibia and Thailand said they had been physically or sexually assaulted by their partners. WHO also reports that at least 10% of women will be raped by an intimate partner. In Sub-Saharan Africa, as much as 48% of women report their first sexual experience was coerced.
Rape is also a weapon of war. Today, the UN estimates that 175,000 women raped during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide are HIV positive. Much of this violence is enabled by disempowering societal norms, perpetuated by governments that lack capacity or will to implement protective legislation. Clearly much more will need to be done to keep the promises of 2001.
An illustrative example of the link between violence against women and HIV/AIDS is a recent study in South Africa found that women who were physically assaulted by their intimate partners were 48% more likely to become HIV-infected than those who were not. When you think about the number of women who are abused around the world, their increased risk of HIV is enormous indeed.
Worldwide, women make up almost half of all people living with HIV/AIDS, and married women are at highest risk—even when faithful to their husbands. In Sub-Saharan Africa the proportion is even higher, yet nine out of ten Africans go without lifesaving drugs. In East Asia the percentage of women with HIV increased by 56% between 2002 and 2004. These sick women are teachers, food producers, caregivers. Without them, entire generations will face even worse poverty and disease burdens.
That 2001 Declaration made another promise: by 2005, to reduce by 25% HIV/AIDS prevalence in the most affected countries. Another broken promise, since only one out of five people has access to prevention services. But with political will and adequate resources, prevention can be successful. Last week’s UNAIDS report indicates that intensive efforts to promote safer behaviors, including the use of condoms, have reduced HIV rates in countries like Zimbabwe. Determined efforts at protecting women’s rights and changing behaviors that put them at risk can work too. One approach is enacting legal protections, such as guaranteeing property rights and prosecuting for domestic violence. One study found that enforcement of property rights in India was protective against domestic violence. And UNAIDS has lauded efforts like Botswana’s law to give married women increased access to their families’ resources.
In June President Bush announced his Women’s Justice and Empowerment in Africa Initiative, which would support through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief legal systems that do justice for women. While this proposal is promising, it is proceeding at a snail’s pace. It should be rapidly assigned to a US agency and implemented so that its success may be tested.
The US can and should use its influence to encourage commitment to protecting women and reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS by advocating for women’s rights legislation to be incorporated into every national AIDS strategy. The US must also ensure that programs to treat women like those in Rwanda are fully funded through mechanisms such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It is only by combining legal empowerment of women with attention to their health care needs that the women’s HIV/AIDS epidemic can be addressed.
This World AIDS Day offers an opportunity to consider these broken promises, and to begin a new chapter in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. If we take seriously its twin epidemic—violence against women—we can make great strides in human rights, global health, and simple integrity. We made the promises. Now it’s time to keep them.
Lisa Schechtman is a
Policy and Grassroots Associate, Global AIDS Alliance. Email: email@example.com.