Women: Victims or not?Living with AIDS #228

Written by Health-e News

A new school of thought in gender and AIDS education is emerging. It reckons that women should not be seen simply as passive victims in the transmission of HIV.

KHOPOTSO: A host of social and economic factors have rendered women subservient to men, including in sexual matters. Until recently, HIV has been seen primarily as a sexually transmitted infection mainly transmitted by the sexual behaviour of men. But of late, new arguments are emerging to say this assertion is not entirely true.          

Dr FRANCOIS VENTER: I do think it’€™s too simple. Women are not just simply passive recipients of men’€™s sexual predatory urges’€¦ I think there are very crude assumptions about lots of things. It’€™s about predatory men and poor innocent women. There’€™s a lot of compartmentalisation of people into huge groups. So, we’€™re going to say 50% of the population is complete victims (and) 50% is complete assailants, essentially. And I think there’€™s lots of shades of grey. I think that amongst women there’€™s a huge amount of disempowerment and I think that that plays, particularly amongst poor women, into their risk of HIV. But, I think that many things, including the loveLife survey, have indicated that women are not necessarily just passive recipients of HIV. They play an active role in defining how sex occurs, who it occurs with’€¦ Simply putting this into a victims’€™ and assailants’€™-type debate, I think, isn’€™t helping us in terms of understanding how this epidemic is unfolding.

KHOPOTSO: Dr Francois Venter, Clinical Director of Wits University’€™s Reproductive Health & HIV Research Unit. In part of a paper he published recently, ‘€œRe-sexualising the epidemic’€, Jonathan Berger, a lawyer with the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg, shares the same view. His argument is also based, in part, on the loveLife survey published in 2004 on youths’€™ attitudes towards sex. The study suggests that there is a growing rate of HIV infection in young men aged 25 and older; that young women are having much more sex than men; and that a minority of all the sex had by young women was unwanted.                

JONATHAN BERGER: Many women, increasingly, are becoming economically independent. Even women who are in the most vulnerable situation, I believe there are things that they can do to make the sex that they are having or, in many cases, forced to have somewhat safer to reduce the risk. A lot of the arguments that I make are based on the research that has been done, which looked at young people between the ages of 15 and 24; looked at when their first sexual experience was. Was it coercive? Wasn’€™t it coercive? And I think, sure, the levels of coercive sex are way too high. The levels of violence within relationships and gender-based violence are very high in this country. But that’€™s not the only kind of sex that women are having’€¦ Not all sex is rape. One has to try and understand: Why is it that people, even when they have information; even when they are in a position where they can negotiate safer sex; why are they not having safer sex?

KHOPOTSO: While it is true that many women tend not to take responsibility for having safe sex, Teboho Maitse, a Commissioner with the Commission on Gender Equality, says this does not mean that women are actively courting HIV infection.

TEBOHO MAITSE: That’€™s a myth’€¦ There are certain social factors that force women, maybe unconsciously or consciously, to contract the disease (such as) the whole philosophy or belief that a woman is nothing without a man. And you find that, sometimes, married women know that their partners are engaged in extra-marital relationships. They do not have the guts nor the courage to ask them to use a condom because the partner is likely to say: ‘€˜Why now? What have you been doing?’€™ rather than saying ‘€˜ok, I think we ought to use a condom.’€™ So, in that way we could say, sometimes, we take those risks.

KHOPOTSO: Someone who has faced such a risk is Nthabiseng from Soweto, her status as an HIV and AIDS educator and counsellor, notwithstanding.                    

NTHABISENG: The first time when you teach about safer sex he feel(s) you judge him. After some time’€¦ he accept(s). Then he’€™s going to use it’€¦ He think(s), maybe, he has HIV or, maybe, me, I have HIV.    

KHOPOTSO: Nthabiseng is not necessarily educated, by the book. Her education comes from encounters with her peers and association with health training institutions. And this unconventional education seems to give her the edge over many formally educated and economically empowered women. Gender Commisioner Teboho Maitse, agrees that on their own, education and money cannot ensure that women will be able to negotiate for safer sex.              

TEBOHO MAITSE: We should not think that women who are economically sound and educated are capable of negotiating safe sex. Remember, the social upbringing and the socialisation of boys and girls, men and women has always reinforced the theory that women are inferior to men. So, even those that are in a position or, should be in a position, to do that sometimes do not’€¦ Least of all, education and access to resources, socialisation is the prime kind of factor that forces us to do that.

KHOPOTSO: Maitse adds that instead of asking whether or not women are victims or survivors in the HIV epidemic, more emphasis needs to be placed on men if the fight against AIDS is to be won.

TEBOHO MAITSE: The people that we need to speak to are older men because some of them have relationships with young girls as sugar-daddies. So, they expose these children already to some harm. And when that young woman meets my son she’€™s likely to infect him if she is already infected by the older man. So, I think we need to take serious cognisance of the fact that we need to start engaging men in the fight against HIV and AIDS.                

E-mail Khopotso Bodibe

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