The latest UNAIDS report noted that an adolescent girl or young woman (15-24 years) acquired HIV every two minutes in 2021. Women who experienced intimate partner violence in the past year were three times more likely to have recently acquired HIV.
During twenty-three years of living with HIV, I attended many meetings on women or gender and HIV. It often seems that organizers wanted to tick the box that they were working with women, but were not listening to the voices of women living with HIV. This continues to happen nowadays. HIV prevention and care programmes that do not listen to women will not succeed. Examples include mother-to-child transmission’s programmes that are for mothers, but are not for all women. Interventions to prevent HIV among clients of commercial sex workers are reported as “programmes for women,” but the target populations are clients of sex workers. These programmes are not wrong, but they are not for women.
Women include very young girls, black and indigenous women, ageing women, pregnant women, women doing sex work, survivors of gender-based violence, women who use drugs, women who are on the move, and transgender women. Therefore, interventions have to respond to the diversity of women during their life cycle, not only during the reproductive years.
There is need for a strong focus on the intersections of gender-based violence and HIV understanding that violence often causes HIV, and HIV generates even more violence. If the legal system criminalizes women in any way, we have to remove those punitive laws. We must change the beliefs that undermine women over men, we have to integrate men and boys to take responsibility for deconstructing stereotypes of women and men. We have to include the communities surrounding women, extended families, partners, faith leaders, mother’s clubs, teachers, educators, cultural, ethnic and other communities. The police and the government have the duty to change unfair conditions, perceptions and concepts and work towards constructing safer spaces. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the type of interventions needed for HIV prevention among women and girls:
HIV prevention must start in early childhood, supporting girls to affirm their identities, ensuring sustainable access to education and food security, and protecting them from violence;
Young girls need all the available scientific information for safe sexual reproductive and sexual health; they need opportunities for a sustainable life and education;
Adult women need support to overcome gender-based violence; integrated programmes with sexual reproductive health; we need the means to sustain our families; and we need legal aid to realize and exercise all our rights, including the right to health, to work, to inherit, to participate in political life, to move, and to live a life free of violence and torture;
As we age, we need social security and support systems with guaranteed access to integrated health care. Too many women age in poverty with minimal health care.
In the International Women`s Day and all days, listen to the women around you, understand our needs and take action. When we invest in a woman, the whole community benefits.
Gracia Violeta Ross
Anthropologist and advocate openly living with HIV
Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga is Bolivian, a Social Anthropologist with postgraduate studies on Gender, Sexual and Reproductive Health. She tested positive for HIV in 2000, two years after she survived being raped. She mobilised communities in order to demand free, universal access to medications. Ross represented Bolivia and Latin America in several global bodies, including UNAIDS, the Global Fund, UN Women and Working Groups of the World Health Organization. Ross does research on HIV, gender based violence, health and human rights. In February 2022, Gracia joined the World Council of Churches to lead the Ecumenical HIV/AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA).