It felt like 2012 was the year of women and health.
From the ‘War on
Women’ in the U.S. with multiple battles on birth control and abortion, to the international outcry sparked by the Delhi rape case in India, or to the dawn of VaginaGate , women were on the agenda. At a time when feminism is argued to be unnecessary because ‘hey, we’ve come a long way’, these issues served as critical reminders that we have much to achieve before women everywhere have the opportunity to realize their full potential.
This emphasis on women’s health was echoed at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. where research and discussion on HIV and women, gender-based violence, reproductive justice and sex work were abundant. UNAIDS offers some useful statistics on women and HIV/AIDS:
- Globally, young women aged 15-24, are most vulnerable to HIV with infection rates twice as high as in young men, and accounting for 22% of all new HIV infections
- Women living with HIV are also more likely to experience violations of their sexual and reproductive rights
The UNAIDS strategy- ‘Getting to Zero’ which targets ‘Zero new HIV infections Zero discrimination and Zero AIDS-related deaths also outlines targets specifically geared towards women. These include ‘Zero tolerance for Gender-Based Violence’ or ensuring that the ‘HIV-specific needs of women and girls are addressed in at least half of all national HIV responses.’
While I applaud the focus on women and the goals UNAIDS sets, it’s difficult to take them seriously when international sex workers (mostly women) were denied entry to D.C. and unable to attend the conference itself. This is a common example of women being the subject of conversation but not having access to the driver’s seat in international spaces.
Putting women at the helm of HIV and health based initiatives serves to challenge discrimination at its heart. Who better to identify the best solutions
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and interventions to an epidemic than the ones most affected by it? This is why the HIV/AIDS field is ripe with political movements that meaningfully engage People Living with HIV/AIDS and other populations most affected.
Gender-based discrimination is complex; it’s present in our collective conscience and connected to class, race, stigma and other widespread ideas that cannot always be quantified. My experiences with community-based HIV/AIDS work has provided much opportunity to work with women’s groups and gain from their valuable insights. As diverse as we are there are some recommendations for how we can begin addressing gender-based discrimination
that resonate in most conversations.
1. Self-critique and Knowing our Words: Before we begin to eradicate discrimination, let’s first learn to recognize where and how it lives. Doing this requires
self-critique and accepting that we all discriminate on some level.
The way we contribute to conversations about women speaks volumes. Women’s bodies and sexuality is never our own and often remains in the public domain- we are shamed for the sex we have or don’t have and constantly told how to dress, how to smell, where to shave, wax, pluck and what kind of body is desirable.
What we say and do (or don’t say and don’t do) with our families, friends and peers carries weight. The messages we send to the women and men in our lives are important, they
can alleviate shame, they can offer support and they can encourage us to care about ourselves and our bodies, preventing HIV and other STIs.
2. Including Men and Boys: Every time we host a workshop on HIV, safer sex or healthy sexuality, the question of how to include men and boys always comes up. The sad reality is that men hold a lot of power in women’s lives and in our bedrooms and targeting sexual health programs to men is essential. Programs that teach respect and unpack masculinities can be crucial in countering gender inequities.
3. Informing and Using our Voice: On a systemic level, staying informed of the decisions around women’s health made by our governments and leaders are vital. In Canada, cuts to the Women’s Health Contribution Program will be made this year, as announced in 2012, reducing funding for relevant research on Aboriginal maternal health, women and addictions and the HPV vaccine. Staying informed better positions us to lend voice that can influence decisions.
So keep talking, reflecting, sharing and participating.
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These conversations are exciting, they remind us that there is work to be done, that we can be part of solutions and that
women’s issues everywhere are alive and kicking.
Originally posted on Huffington Post Canada at http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/vijaya-chikermane/international-womens-day_b_2838726.html