By Michelle Leon
Although many may argue that women’s rights have made significant improvements and has led to a more equal society, I think people often ignore populations across the globe that are still behind in women equality. And when specifically looking at populations at risk for HIV, women are at higher risk than men. And I think the most important factor for women’s HIV risk across the globe is women subordination to men that is still seen today. And it doesn’t just occur when contracting HIV but subordination also affects women’s chance to treat HIV.
I came across a NY Times article speaking about a new vaginal ring that will reduce HIV rates in African Women. According to Denise Grady, this new vaginal ring slowly releases an antiviral drug (dapivirine) thus protecting women from HIV sexual transmission 1. Studies on African women and this vaginal ring resulted in a 27% reduction in infection rates 1. The ring can stay in the vagina for a month and it is cheap. But while I read these results I could only help but wonder why such a device is needed. In the United States, contraceptives and condoms are so prevalent and accessible that I couldn’t understand why such a device was necessary. And then I thought… women in parts of the world don’t have access to contraceptives and can’t protect themselves from sexual transmission of HIV.
Of the 37 million people who are infected with HIV, half of them are women, and most are from the sub-Saharan region of Africa 1. The reason this vaginal ring is important is because men don’t have to find out that women are using it. With this ring, women do not need to ask for permission or ask their partners to wear a condom and even when men deny women the ability to take contraceptive pills, the ring helps protect them from HIV transmission. Additionally, once placed inside, neither she nor her partner will feel it, preventing the possibility it might disturb the sexual experience 1. But such a ring would be irrelevant in a world where women were equal to men in various aspects of life. But the reality is that, women suppression is still common today and I think it is the driving force for why women are at higher risk for HIV. There are various reasons why women subordination leads to higher rates of HIV infection and decreases their rates of survival for those living with the disease.
First off, marital violence and gender-based violence prevent women from protecting themselves from sexual transmission 2. In a study conducted in South Africa, women who experienced partner violence were 50% more likely to get infected with HIV than those who do not experience such violence 3. Secondly, women in countries with high rates of HIV (e.g. sub-Sahara Africa) have less access to healthcare services or have none 2. Lack of access to sexual health services indicates that women have less ability to look out for their health and even when women have access to some services, stigma against women can result in refusal. Consequently, when pregnant, women infected with HIV may not receive the appropriate care to reduce transmission to her child. And lastly, girls’ lack of access to education also drives their higher rates of HIV infection. According to UN’s 2004 publication on women and HIV/AIDS, one study of 32 countries found that women who had some secondary education were five times more likely than illiterate women to have knowledge of HIV 4. Additionally, illiterate women were four times more likely to believe that HIV could not be prevented.
So as you can tell by now, most of these factors that increase women’s risk for HIV infection, are intertwined with women suppression. And I think that is what needs to be addressed and be top priority in developing countries and regions of the world that continue to have high rates of HIV. Women suppression needs to be dealt with through education and spread of knowledge. Women in countries known to have women subordination need better HIV testing, better antiretroviral treatment for pregnant women, better school-based interventions to reduce stigma against women and help change cultural norms about the role of women.
1 Grady, D. (2016, February 22). Vaginal Ring With Drug Lowers H.I.V. Rates in African Women. Retrieved February 26, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/health/vaginal-ring-hiv-aids-drug-dapivirine.html
2 Women and HIV/AIDS | AVERT. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2016, from http://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-social-issues/key-affected-populations/women
3 Jewkes, R. et al (2010) ‘Intimate partner violence, relationship power inequity, and incidence of HIV infection in young women in South Africa: a cohort study‘ The Lancet 376(9734):41-48
4 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2004) ‘Women and HIV/AIDS: Confronting the Crisis’
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