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Abuse of women escalates HIV infections in Africa

Violations of women’s rights escalates the rate of HIV infections throughout the continent. Sexual oppression combined with a high biological receptiveness of viral transmission, put women at risk. As a consequence, the violence against women threatens to destroy whole communities.

According to Linda Osermen, of the Inter-African Committee (IAC), violence against women are a reflection of a value system which upholds and maintains the patriarchal power structure within which women are subjugated and abused at a monumental scale as collaborated by the reports of Special Reporters on violence against women and on traditional practices. The IAC supports the adoption of the optional protocol by the Commission on the Status of Women and has been dealing with the problem of harmful traditional practices for the past 15 years.

The Interfaith International, represented by Geneva Arif, states that violence against women are rarely mentioned in the Commission on the Status of Women unless it is to condemn someone else for doing the violation. Women are vulnerable to rape and violence during times of war, by enemy soldiers or during peace time at home. There seems to be an appalling silence from some representatives, when these same acts against women are committed within their home communities by male members of the communities. In the Middle East, parts of south Asia and parts of Africa, women who are perceived to have brought dishonor to their family could be murdered by any man of the family (honor killings). This man will only receive a sentence lasting from 3 months to 2 years.

Ms. Arif says women in Sudan are facing daily atrocities as a result of the ongoing war in southern Sudan. They are being killed, starved to death and kidnapped for enslavement. The Public Order Act which was introduced by the Government in 1992 severely curtailed the rights of women in all fields of life including civil, political, social and cultural rights. They risk flogging if they are not in complete compliance with Muslim dress codes. Female mutilation are practiced within a large area from the Red Sea to the Atlantic coast. The effects are irreversible and cause a lifetime of physical and mental suffering.

A member of the Research, Action and Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of Women, Ms. Toubia, says there is tremendous denial in Africa about the issue of violence against women and girls. The abuses suffered by the continent itself, ranged from slavery to colonialism to the new economic order which has placed Africa on the lowest rung. As a result, Africans have created a defensiveness about any criticism of their society. They are very proud and they do not want to change their cultures or social systems. That philosophy is “a recipe for suicide”, she says.

Women have paid a great cost. Whenever they speak out about violations of their rights, they are told that they are becoming “western” or that they are adhering to the views of international agencies. It is disturbing that the issue of violence against women are escalating in Africa, largely due to the increasing conflict on the continent. There are the old forms of culturally-based violence, as well as those emerging from socio-economic disparities. Female genital mutilation and discriminatory inheritance laws, for example, deprive women of certain basic rights, and expose them to human rights violations.

According to David Littman, of the Association for World Education, the term “traditional or customary practices” is a shameful euphemism for crime against women. Female genital mutilation is performed every year on more than 1 million — perhaps up to 2 million — female babies, young girls, and women in 30 countries in Africa. This ancient ritual should long ago have been termed “female torture”. Mr. Littman says there is no binding religious justification for these practices, which are pre-Islamic customs that have become prevalent in places where Islam later spread, and are maintained out of fear.

When it comes to women in areas of conflict, the situation is alarming. Ms.Bineta Diop, of the African Commission of Health and Human Rights Promoters, states that there are unprecedented dimensions of forced internal migrations where the numbers of internally displaced women and refugees reaches horrendous proportions. There are 6 million refugees as well as 15 million internally displaced persons found in Africa alone. Women and children are the most vulnerable groups, comprising the vast majority of the victims and often becoming targets and being repeatedly victimized by the attacks. The recent conflicts in Africa, particularly the Sierra Leone crisis, has again illustrated that those in quest for power by bullets do not hesitate to use every means to impose brutalities and atrocities on innocent civilians such as women and children.

Another source of concern is the exposure of African women to life-threatening illnesses like HIV/AIDS. The women in the villages is often “sitting ducks waiting to be shot”. Their husbands will return to their homes for the weekend and often refuse to use condoms. In the rural sectors, women are the engines who drive these economies. It is therefore time to support an end to the violence against them in order to ensure the success of ongoing efforts to promote sustainable development on the continent.

It is particularly concerning that the rate of infection is higher among girls and women than it is among men. UNAIDS points out that lack of education about the virus is “a growing liability”. Studies have confirmed that better-educated young girls tend to start having sexual relationships later. It is sad to note that in many parts of the world, cultural and social conditions prevent young girls from receiving education. The implication is that many girls are denied the right to inform themselves about their sexual and reproductive rights and options.

Studies have shown that women (for biological reasons) are more vulnerable than men to sexually transmitted diseases and other opportunistic infections like HIV. This is especially marked in girls whose genital tracts are still not fully mature. The genital lining of the youth and girls in particular is still not well developed to protect the viral transmission into the body. Older women have harder vaginal mucosal lining which does not easily break during the act of sex, that of the young girls is still very tender and breaks easily thus increasing chances of infection. Compounding biological vulnerability is the fact that women are far more likely to be coerced into sex, or raped – often by someone older, who has had greater exposure to the virus. Lack of empowerment also causes the spread of AIDS. The youth are under the control of adults. Girls in particular have sex with people older than they. These people have more power over them such that the youth are not assertive enough to negotiate for safer sex.

Violence against women can also take less overt forms. Young girls often have sexual relationships with ‘sugar daddies” who coerce them to have sex in exchange for gifts and favors. Such unequal relationships also have consequences for women, in terms of their risk of infection. World-wide, women between the ages of 15 and 24 also account for half of new HIV infections.

Botswana is one of the countries most affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The impact of this pandemic is placing a heavy burden on the individual and the entire economy. We also observe that, while women and girls are especially vulnerable to the HIV infection, there is also a disproportionate burden placed on them as care-givers. In Africa, the rate of infection in teenage girls is six times higher than in women over 35 years. About one in four teenage girls lives with HIV, compared to one in 25 teenage boys.

The challenge is to find creative ways to change the social conditions that deny young women the ability to control practices that increase their vulnerability for contracting HIV. In many instances, women are still seen as sexual objects. Women bear the greatest burden of HIV/AIDS. The majority of young women cannot protect themselves against AIDS because they have to rely on their male partners who may decide whether or not to use a condom.

This issues were debated at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). In the Programme of Action it was stressed that it is important to promote men’s understanding of their roles and responsibilities with regard to respecting the human rights of women; protecting women’s health, preventing unwanted pregnancy; reducing maternal mortality and morbidity; reducing transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; sharing household and child-rearing responsibilities; and promoting the elimination of harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation, and sexual and other gender-based violence.

Women are recognized as a fundamental force in the quest to eradicate poverty and maintain the stability of families and societies. Without improving the status of women, we cannot expect any real progress in society, and especially in the battle against AIDS.

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