The Gendered Dimensions of HIV

28 May 2018

South Africa has one of the biggest HIV epidemics in the world, with 7.1 million people living with the virus. There is a huge gender disparity in infection rates, with nearly four times the number of young women infected than men their age.

Sylvia, a woman that lives and breathes these statistics, is fighting to make history. Fourteen years ago, after her daughter fell gravely ill, she discovered her and her daughter were living with HIV. At the time Sylvia was pregnant antenatal care visits in South Africa did not test for HIV. This meant not only was she not diagnosed, but she knew nothing about the virus, an issue that Sylvia repeatedly stressed.

Sylvia realised she needed to take back the control she had unwittingly lost. “I read everything I could find to get as much information as possible. I just wanted to know more so that I could raise my daughter and live a long life together. My doctor told me to tell Shameen when she was 12, to avoid her blaming me but also to ensure that when she starts engaging in sexual activities she is fully knowledgeable," she said. Sylvia now works for the charity mothers2mothers, helping educate other mothers and children. The hard work of groups like this are making total elimination of mother-to-child transmission less a dream and more a reality. But there is a dangerous undercurrent stopping this goal from being achieved. 

As increasing numbers of people get tested for HIV, there are still some reluctant to come forward: victims of abuse. Sylvia now leads household visits in Mpumalanga, where she assesses families, caregivers and children, and then provides essential services and advice, Both Sylvia and a wealth of research behind the gender disparity in HIV infection rates cite violence against women as a reason mother-to-child transmission still exists. 

“Most women I talk to when they are abused, they don’t come forward and talk about it. When I go into homes and ask the mother, ‘oh, what happened to your face?’, the mother will just come up with an excuse.” This culture of silence among abused women extends to their health, meaning they are less likely to come forward and get tested.  Victims of domestic abuse may also be unable to negotiate safe sex practices with their partner, putting them at higher risk of infection.

“We need to fight gender violence to improve everything else for women, so women can stand up and do positive things, because if they keep on being abused it won’t just harm women, but the whole family, so they must come forward. Women need to know their rights, because most women I visit don’t seem to, and they don’t know where to look to to use these rights,” she said.

In a life focused on her daughter and helping other women, Sylvia is determined to keep fighting this clearly gendered virus.

Read the full article online here.