Empower women to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS

Because women often test for HIV sooner than men in, they may know and disclose their HIV statuses before their male partners. Studies have shown this can put women at risk of verbal and physical violence as they are unfairly blamed for allegedly bringing HIV into a relationship. (File photo)

DURBAN – “Empowering women does not disempower men”. This was the message from Dr Geeta Rao Gupta in a stirring address to the AIDS 2000 conference yesterday (Wednesday) on the role of gender and sexuality in the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Dr Gupta, who is based at the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) in the USA, emphasised the importance of AIDS programmes that sought to empower women in order to combat the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS.

“Power is not a finite concept. More power to one invariably means more power to all. Empowering women empowers households, communities and entire nations,” she said.

Gupta said gender and sexuality were relevant in the spread of HIV as well as in the way in which they influenced treatment, care and support.  

In a world in which men invariably had greater control over where, when and how sex took place, women would always be vulnerable. “Gender roles that disempower women and give men a false sense of power are killing our youth, and women and men in their most productive years.” To resounding applause she said, “this must change!”

Gupta said this imbalance in power between women and men, and the way in which gender was defined, curtailed women’s sexual autonomy and expanded men’s sexual freedom. The result was a greater increase in the risk to both women and men to HIV.

Societal norms all too often expected women to be silent receptacles of sex. Women’s economic vulnerability also meant that they exchanged sex for survival.

Unequal power balances did not only affect women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, said Gupta. It also increased men’s vulnerability to HIV infection because the pressure to be a “real man” often implied multiple partners exposing men to greater risk of HIV infection.

Socialisation which taught men to be self-reliant, not to show their emotions and not to seek help in times of stress was likely to reduce the chances that they would seek assistance or advice regarding safer sex practices.

Gupta said in order to address the impact of gender and sexuality on the spread of HIV/AIDS interventions should avoid reinforcing damaging gender or sexual stereotypes.

Ideally, HIV/AIDS programmes should try to transform gender roles and create a more gender-equitable relationships.  

She rejected the argument that changing gender roles to equalise the power between men and women conflicted with multiculturalism and diversity in society. She said changing gender roles did not challenge a society’s culture, but rather its customs and practices.

“I believe that customs and practices that seek to subordinate women and trap men in damaging patterns of sexual behaviour are based on a biased interpretation of culture that serves narrow interests,” said Gupta. – Health-e News



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