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Violence against women at root of HIV/AIDS crisis

By Chris Hufstader

Across southern Africa, HIV infection rates are climbing, and women face the greatest risk. One cause for this vulnerability: violence against women leads to a higher rate of infection, according to numerous reports by the UN and national governments.

Women who are beaten by a husband or partner, or are emotionally or financially dominated, are much more likely to be infected than those living in a non-violent household. Abused women have limited abilities to negotiate their sexual activity or safe sex practices, and are vulnerable to even more abuse if they are the first to learn of their infection status and have to tell their partners.

Any effort to bring down HIV infection rates also needs to reduce violence against women—and women need to take the lead in pushing governments to deal with the problem. However there is little pressure to provide better protection for women. Social norms in southern Africa (and many other parts of the world), discourage women from speaking out about such "private matters."

In southern Africa, this silence is proving deadly. "Organizations of people affected by AIDS are weak," said Mark Heywood, head of the AIDS Law Project at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. "Women are centrally affected, but the response is limited to services to orphans and other areas," he said.

A double burden

The gender violence situation is particularly serious in South Africa, a country of 47 million people where more than 5 million are living with HIV and AIDS. A woman is raped every 26 minutes, and a woman is killed every six hours. More than three quarters of young South Africans living with HIV are females, and more than one quarter say their first sexual experience was unwanted, says a report by the Medical Research Council in South Africa.

Since the end of apartheid, some new and progressive laws have been passed to reduce violence against women, such as the 1998 Domestic Violence Act. But that law is not being enforced, and there is no strong effort to force society to address the problem and to empower women to speak out about gender violence. This would help move the problem out from the shadows of their private lives and into the public realm, where the government must acknowledge violence against women for what it is: a serious human rights issue with significant social and economic implications for fighting poverty.

Building the movement to defeat violence

As a first step in helping organize the critical mass needed to oppose gender violence in South Africa and across the region, Oxfam America is funding the Johannesburg-based People Opposed to Women's Abuse (POWA) organization's work to document all the groups providing services to abused women, as well as those engaged in advocacy and public information campaigns on women's rights.

All across South Africa, small, community-based organizations help women victims of domestic violence. They provide safe housing, counseling, legal and medical assistance, and other services. But there is no strong, political effort to deal with violence against women. Women's organizations are not linked to speak with one voice about the problems of domestic violence and push for legal reforms and changes in policies and traditions that will protect women. This means they are treating the symptoms, but not the root causes of the problem.

"We need to maintain the service delivery, but we feel we need to stop reacting and help these community-based organizations speak out as well," explained Delphine Serumaga, Director of POWA. "We need to push from underneath."

Global campaign against violence

Oxfam partners in southern Africa are also participating in the global "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence." The Center for Global Women's Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey is organizing the campaign, which starts on November 25th, the International Day Against Violence Against Women, and ends on December 10th, International Human Rights Day. The campaign also coincides with International AIDS Day in December 1st. This year's theme for the 16 Days campaign is "For the Health of Women, for the Health of the World." It is designed to highlight the connections between violence against women and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as well as the unmet commitments made by governments to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis.

South Africa: POWA is working with Amnesty International South Africa to host an international "cyber-dialogue" on the subject of trafficking of women and violence against refugee women in southern Africa. This public information campaign is building on a Listserv set up by the 16 Days campaign to promote dialogue and organizing around violence against women. POWA hopes the electronic discussion will help activists in all the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries build joint efforts to combat violence against women, another goal of Oxfam America's HIV/AIDS program in the region.

Interested participants in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence cyber-dialogue in southern Africa can visit www.genderlinks.org.za

Zimbabwe: The Women's Action Group (WAG), an Oxfam America partner since 2000 and a member of a coalition promoting new domestic violence legislation in Zimbabwe, is leading a campaign to educate women about their rights and HIV/AIDS. WAG is participating in a number of events marking the 16 Days campaign around the country. First will be the national launch of the campaign by the Zimbabwe Ministry of Women's Affairs, followed by events to raise awareness of child abuse, HIV and AIDS, and domestic violence in Macheke, where there have been recent reports of abuse at a primary school. WAG will also be working with the National AIDS Council to commemorate International AIDS Day on December 1st in Chiramanzu, and will then host a series of discussions on cultural practices that increase women's vulnerability to HIV/AIDS from December 2nd through the 9th in Marondera.

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