HIV/AIDS and Gender: South African Women and the Spread of Infection

By Olabimpe Olafuyi, Xavier University

The African continent is an international spotlight for many reasons. One of the most prominent issues in Africa, especially in South Africa today is the seemingly unrelenting spread of the AIDS virus. There are many theories explaining the origin of this rampant pandemic; some suggest that the public is simply uninformed about the disease and its dangers, while others believe that poor testing methods and contaminated medical supplies may lie at the root of the problem. The international press discusses this issue incessantly; however, little has been said about the correlation between gender-based violence and this devastating virus.

This connection between HIV/AIDS and gender based violence has become painfully evident through the conclusions of several studies conducted primarily in South Africa. Although the disease is spread frequently through unprotected heterosexual intercourse, rape, and sexual assault (immediate causes), the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS notes important secondary causes such as oppression and violence women contraction. “The structured socioeconomic oppression of women in conjunction with systemic gender-based violence contributes significantly higher infection rates” (Global Coalition on Women and AIDS 2006). This relationship has grave consequences for global health and human development, especially with regard to adult women, adolescents, and girls who are most affected by sexual violence and are consequently more susceptible to this virus.

The association of gender-based violence with HIV/AIDS infection is especially apparent in sexual violence between partners. “Misogynistic males who believe in the stereotype that females are domestic, sexual, unintelligent, and fragile people who belongs to a male for his pleasing”(Powell, Kevin confessions of a recovering misogynist) diminish a woman’s ability to negotiate safe sexual practices and completely truncate the opportunity to discuss prior sexual partners . This shows that the women in these relationships are subservient to the male, who is considered the leader and protector in different cities and tribes. While multiple partnerships are a matter of status and prestige for men, the same standard does not apply to women, who have to remain discrete about other relationships for fear of violence and “punishment” if these other relationships are discovered. Such punishment might manifest itself as rape or gang rape. The notion that unprotected sex is a sign of trust and fidelity is often shared by both partners.

Chastity and virginity are highly sought after in women, but restrict their ability to seek information on sexual health. In some parts of South Africa, specifically in the KwaZulu-Natal province, “virginity testing” has been re-introduced. Some of the most marginalized people – particularly women living in the rural areas – have come to practice virginity testing as a way of re-instituting the cultural value placed on preserving virginity until marriage. Women face additional and more acute discrimination when they are identified as being HIV positive. Since they are often first to test positive through pre-natal testing, they are branded as the “spreaders” of the virus. Once their HIV-positive status is revealed or disclosed, women might be physically abused, socially ostracized, cut off from critical economic resources, or be evicted from their homes.

Women’s vulnerability to HIV infection is particularly heightened by their economic dependence on men, which can sometimes drive them to engage in informal and commercial sex work to provide for themselves and their families. The marriage power bestowed upon men in some societies makes it difficult for women to negotiate for safer sex. They are frequently unable to insist on condom use to protect themselves against the risk of HIV transmission by a male partner because of their economic dependence on men. This causes high poverty levels and lack of access to opportunities and resources for women. Women are less likely to have independent access to economic resources and recent research in South Africa has shown the direct positive correlation between women’s access to economic resources and their ability to protect themselves from HIV infection and against violence. Because men can withdraw their economic support women listen and carry out what the male wants. This makes their exposure to sexual violence and intimate partner violence increase their risk of HIV infection over time.

Gender based violence is most apparent in respect to the crime of rape, which can lead to direct HIV transmission. Due to the high HIV prevalence and high levels of sexual violence in South Africa, women are at risk of contracting this virus as a consequence of rape. The likelihood of transmission during an incident of rape can be exacerbated by a number of factors. This includes that perpetrators rarely use a condom, the “high rate of multiple perpetrator” rapes, the frequency of sexual assaults and the presence of sexually transmitted infections. In a violent sexual assault a victim may also receive wounds in the genital area and associated bleeding which can further increase chances of transmission of the virus. Because women and girls can experience gender-based violence or witness it from a very early age the consequences for the health and psychological well-being of the women and girls subjected to these forms of violence can be devastating.

Other forms of discrimination can act as barriers to women’s access to prevention, treatment, and care for HIV. There has been extensive work done in South Africa to promote gender equality, protect women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and keep them out violent living situations. However, rural women continue to experience oppression in their relationships with male partners, families, and the wider community as a result of their low social status in conjunction testing positive for HIV. These manifestations of gender inequality were associated with a range of consequences, including failure to complete their education, violations of their sexual and reproductive rights, and imposed barriers to HIV-related health services and treatment. While there are obvious benefits to testing, the environment of perpetual violence and poverty complicates the situation significantly. Even though women are tested in greater percentages than men, the limited support they receive and the stigma associated with testing positive leaves them vulnerable to discrimination, abandonment and violence. The International Guidelines on HIV and Human Rights has drawn the attention to the government need to address “discrimination based on gender which impairs women’s ability to deal with the consequences of their own infection”. Women may face abuse from their partners when attempting to have access to health services for HIV-related treatment and care. Where the woman’s partner is in denial about his own status of a sexual transmitted disease he may resent her going to the clinic, or taking medication. Sometimes it is the woman’s fear of the possible reaction by her partner or family members that impacted her decision to seek intervention or life saving treatment. The potential for abuse or the fear of abuse is exacerbated by her low status in the community. Some women hide medication in their homes because they fear that their HIV status may be revealed to members of their household.

HIV positive women faced with the prospect of social stigma may be more likely to stay with an abusive or violent partner. Abusive conduct and prejudice will not only be carried out by a male partner, but relatives and community members as well. When talking about beatings at the hands of their husbands because of AIDS-related illness, they are largely ignored by society as a whole. Even hospitals and medical clinics fail to provide advice or information to assist these women; their questions go unanswered and they are rarely referred to support services or shelters. Violence against women is a persistent and devastating manifestation of gender based discrimination. Gender inequity increases vulnerability to HIV infection for women in South Africa. The environment which females are usually subservient to males contributes to gender discriminatory laws and customs, which in turn further oppress women and put them in vulnerable positions where they are more likely to contract the virus. Controlling and decreasing discrimination and violence against women is at the very cornerstone to decreasing the spread of HIV/AIDS and the prospect of better life for millions of women.

PowerPoint Presentation

Work Citied

Jewkes R, Abraham’s N (2002). 1999. The International Guidelines of rape and sexual coercion in South Africa: an overview. Social Science and Medicine, 2002; 55:1231-44

Global Coalition on Women and AIDS (2006), Keeping the promise: an agenda for action on women and AIDS. Geneva: UNAIDS, 2006. New York: Harper Colophon Books.

Powell, Kevin. “CONFESSIONS OF A RECOVERING MISOGYNIST.”Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature. John Wiley 8z Sons, fall. 2000.


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