In the zone

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11 Sep 2014

It was in the Women's Networking Zone in the Global Village that the real International AIDS Conference took place, at least in terms of women's rights issues, reports AIDS activist Sarah Feagan.

Women account for more than half of the 35 million people living with HIV worldwide. But while women are the most affected they remain the least respected, facing stigma, discrimination and violence. 

However, don’t regard us as victims. Women living with HIV (WLHIV) are leading the way forward in communities across the globe. We are taking action to increase education, expand access to sexual and reproductive health services, address gender discrimination and violence, help each other negotiate safer sexual relations, and provide access to female-controlled prevention methods such as the female condom.

Many such women could be found in the Women’s Networking Zone (WNZ) at AIDS 2014. The WNZ was a vibrant, inclusive, exciting, safe space designed to promote dialogue, forge new networks, raise the visibility of issues directly affecting women living with HIV, champion their leadership, and promote the global exchange of experiences, abilities and ideas.

The zone advocated for the following commitments: that peer mentoring or counselling be made available to all women at the time of HIV diagnosis; that a target of 30% be set for WLHIV on HIV advisory bodies; and that sexual and reproductive health and HIV healthcare be offered as an integrated service.

Over six days, the WNZ ran a full program of daily dialogues, workshops and presentations organised around four major themes: access to antiretroviral therapy and healthcare; sexual and reproductive health and rights; violence and discrimination; criminalisation and justice.

From speakers’ accounts, access to treatment — not only across national borders, and between high-income and low-income countries, but within nations themselves — is erratic and inconsistent. Stigma and discrimination were also found to create very real barriers to healthcare access for WLHIV. Put simply: women are being denied life-saving treatment because
they are women.

Religious and gender-based violence — as well as women's low social status, both within the family and within the wider
community — was also shown to have a great and often unappreciated impact on access to treatment and services. Women commonly refuse treatment because of the violence and isolation they’d suffer if their HIV status became known. The level ofstigma women face in the health service sector is vast, and these battles are still being fought.

Themes surrounding sexual and reproductive health and rights include: the forced or coerced sterilisation of WLHIV; discrimination experienced by WLHIV in the maternal and child healthcare setting; inability to access reproductive healthcare; and a lack of knowledge by healthcare providers of issues such as menopause and cervical cancer and how they particularly affect WLHIV. Speakers argued for a need for more consistency in services and called for HIV and sexual and reproductive healthcare to be integrated into a system that respects the bodily autonomy and the human rights of WLHIV.

Positive women at AIDS 2014 also gave testimony to the pervasive effects of violence, stigma and discrimination on the
general quality of life of WLHIV. The fear of, or experience of, violence and discrimination severely impacts the lives of WLHIV globally; it affects their sense of self-worth, and their physical and mental health. Gender-based violence was shown
to occur across cultures and regions, and to increase a woman's risk of exposure to HIV. Furthermore, a woman's positive
status puts her at greater risk of violence.

When the focus turned to criminalisation and justice it was made clear that many aspects of women's lives are criminalised in relation to their HIV status: from sexuality, to childbearing, adoption and breastfeeding. Disclosure also emerged as an important issue: it was found that the burden of disclosure (and possible criminal prosecution when failing to disclose)  disproportionately falls on WLHIV in heterosexual relationships.

While all people living with HIV yearn for a cure and a vaccine to achieve zero new infections, a human rights-based approach that addresses stigma, discrimination and criminalisation of women living with HIV is essential. As the largest affected population, women's voices must be a part of the conversation, and addressing gender justice must be a part of the
solution. As was stated at conference: “the face of the pandemic is a female face”, and as such, women are central to the response to put an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Stats:

  • Globally, 54% of all adults living with HIV are women.
  • Young women worldwide make up more than 60% of young people living with HIV; in sub-Saharan Africa, their share jumps up to 75%.
  • In 26 of 31 countries with a generalised HIV epidemic, less than 50% of young women have comprehensive and correct knowledge about HIV.
  • An estimated 50 million women in Asia are at risk of acquiring HIV from their intimate partners.

Source: UN Women