Atticle by: Audrey Nosenga
Students and Youths Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT) joins the world in celebrating the International Women’s Day under the theme PressforProgress, The theme of the International Woman’s Day Campaign provides a unified direction to guard and galvanize collective action globally. The theme does not end on International Women’s Day but it’s just a starting point as it builds momentum throughout the whole year. What does this theme mean for women living with HIV in Zimbabwe and around the world?
HIV disproportionately affects women and adolescent girls mostly because of their unequal cultural, social and economic statuses in society. Intimate partner violence, inequitable laws and harmful traditional practices reinforce unequal power dynamics between men and women, with younger women in particular being the most disadvantaged. Although HIV is not only driven by gender inequalities, it entrenches gender inequality, leaving women more vulnerable to its impact. In Zimbabwe and many other developing countries, women face significant barriers to accessing healthcare services. These barriers occur at the individual, interpersonal, community and societal levels. Barriers take any forms including denial of access to services that only women require, discrimination from service providers stemming from views around female sexuality, and poor quality services. Procedures relating to a woman’s sexual and reproductive health (SRH) performed without consent like forced virginity examinations and illegal abortions also deter women from accessing services. In some cases healthcare providers do not fully understand sexual reproductive and health rights of women and this can lead to women choosing to have illegal abortions as they are misinformed about their options and how to protect their health as well of their child’s. In some cases women require the consent of spouses or partners to access SHR services. A lack of access to comprehensive HIV and SRH services means that women are less able to look after their Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and increase the risk of HIV infection.
In a number of settings where SRHR and HIV services exist they are primarily for married women with children and do not meet the specific needs of unmarried young women and adolescent girls. Most health care providers often lack the training and skills to deliver youth-friendly services and do not fully understand laws around age of consent. In some cases young women have knowledge of where to obtain SRH information and services but they face offensive experience with service providers’, unsupportive attitudes, power dynamics in relationships and communication issues with parents and community members prevent them from accessing and utilizing the information and services that they need. Due to dominant cultural and religious norms, sexual activities outside of marriage are often unaccepted by both service providers and the young people themselves. As a result service providers are reluctant to provide SRH services to unmarried but sexually active young people who in some cases are young women and more often these young women are too ashamed or afraid to ask for assistance.
Poverty is an overarching factor that increases vulnerability to and the impact of HIV. Transactional sex, early marriages and abusive relationships which may be as a result of financial challenges, exposes young women to violence and abuse. It’s a sad scenario that food insecurity often linked to poverty, acts as barrier to treatment for women living with HIV. This increases both the risk of HIV advancing and onward transmission. Transactional sex with older man is more likely to expose young women to unsafe sexual behaviors, low condom use and an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections.
Issues to do with Gender Based Violence prevents many young women from protecting themselves against HIV. In this case Gender Based Violence which can be seen as a physical manifestation of gender inequality has been shown to act as a barrier to the uptake of HIV testing and counseling, to the disclosure of HIV-positive status, and to antiretroviral treatment (ART) uptake and adherence, including among pregnant women who receive ART as part of services to prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT).
As we continue to fight against AIDS with the hope of an HIV free generation, this International Women’s Day may we all think and act towards protecting women in all aspects of life. Collective action and shared responsibility for driving gender parity is what makes International Woman’s Day successful. International Women’s Day belongs to all communities everywhere- governments, companies, charities, educational institutions, networks, associations, the media and many more. Whether throughout the global conference, community gathering, classroom lesson or dinner table conversation- everyone can play a purposeful part in pressing for gender equality.
So make International Women’s Day YOUR day and do what you can to truly make a positive difference for women. Protect them against HIV/AIDS and help them decide.