End Inequalities. End AIDS. End Pandemics. Day 6. (7/16).
It’s World AIDS Day!
A day set aside to raise awareness on the AIDS pandemic and to remember the lives of those who we’ve lost to the deadly disease. The theme for this year is “END INEQUALITIES. END AIDS. END PANDEMICS” and I can’t think of a more perfect message for the world at this time. This is why I’ve decided to pause on trauma responses, only for today to write on how AIDS can be a direct effect of gender inequality and gender-based violence.
The UNAIDS reports that girls and women make up more than half of the 38 million people living with HIV worldwide. This epidemic affects women and girls the most because of existing inequalities in our cultural practices, laws, and economic status. We know that even the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affects women too. This is the rot in the system we keep emphasizing needs to be fixed. Every traumatic event a woman is exposed to isn’t just damaging to the mind or the nervous system but one’s physical health. Trauma opens the pathway to chronic illnesses putting them in life-threatening positions. In 2019, UNAIDS also reported that AIDS was a leading cause of death for women aged between 15 and 49 with about 50 adolescent girls dying every day from AIDS-related illnesses. Phew! I’m so overwhelmed right now. When we make progress as a gender, it seems like there’s still so much out there with the ability to end us.
What is one contributing factor putting women and girls at risk of contracting AIDS and dying from it?
The answer is simple, Sexual violence:
This encompasses rape, incestuous rape, molestation, FGM, child marriage, and so on. When a person is abused, they stand the risk of being infected with HIV that can lead to AIDS if the perpetrator is a carrier. This is why part of the first medical care to abuse victims is providing HIV preventive drugs to them. Of course, this only works where the victim can reach out for help in time. In most cases, it doesn’t happen so the rate of infection keeps going up.
Two months ago, in Nigeria here, a Judge in Jigawa High Court, sentenced a man to life imprisonment for molesting his 6-year-old sister-in-law and infecting her with HIV. Before now, he had raped the victim’s older sister who was then forced to marry him. These are the challenges we face. This young child doesn’t just get to deal with the impact of what this abuse will do to her mind but she has to carry the burden of living with a chronic illness for the rest of her life. Her story isn’t an isolated one as several girls are exposed to sexual violence everywhere in the world. According to the UN, 37,000 girls are married under the age of 18 every day. This is an express sacrificial offer of girls to vicious men to be exposed to all kinds of health crises. At such an age, they can’t negotiate safe sex practices, they’re at the mercy of their abuser for life until they die.
In a similar light, over 200 million girls in 30 countries have been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation which is another form of sexual violence that puts them at risk of contracting HIV. In some cultures, the cutters use one razor or knife to cut all the girls they come in contact with. FGM on its own is deeply traumatizing without a chronic illness in the picture. Now, add HIV and imagine how difficult it must be for these women and girls.
A Way Forward:
1. Educate yourself and unlearn your biases towards persons living with HIV/AIDS.
2. We need more school-based interventions to give proper reproductive health education to young girls.
3. We need to address violence against women and increase efforts to end it.
4. We need to address unequal laws, customs, and cultural practices.
5. We need to involve both women and men in this fight.
Finally, I’ll leave you with the words of Michel Sidib’e, a former executive of UNAIDS “this epidemic, unfortunately, remains an epidemic of women” and we need a women-centered approach to end it. We need the contribution and participation of women. We need to listen and truly hear women when they speak.
"Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”
John 7:38 NLT