Where violence and HIV meet: Intersections are explored at this year’s International AIDS Conference, and the Kolkata Conference Hub

Say NO UNiTE (link), 26 July 2012

Held every two years, the International AIDS Conference is the world’s largest conference on HIV, and plays a fundamental role in shaping the global response to HIV, and keeping HIV and AIDS on the international political agenda.

While the global climate for this year’s event in Washington DC (22-27 July) has seen  funding for the global HIV response diminish, important achievements are emerging on, among other areas, most-at-risk populations, the intersection of violence and HIV, parent-to-child transmission, and treatment as prevention. Attending for the first time as an official co-sponsor of UNAIDS, UN Women has been working to champion gender equality and women’s empowerment in the global response to HIV.

Among the week’s discussions, UN Women convened and moderated a panel of women leaders to highlight achievements in women’s leadership that are driving change and transformation of the HIV response; and co-sponsored events focused on gender-based violence and its link to HIV, in a panel “Taking Stock of Evidence and Setting the Implementation Agenda, panelists highlighted the latest evidence of how violence against women is increasing risk of HIV infection.   A panel discussion with, ‘Together for Girls’ , a unique initiative that UN Women is part of, bringing together private sector organizations, UN entities and governments in the fight against sexual violence against girls, explored the need for better data to document the magnitude and impact of sexual violence as a means to support the development and implementation of evidence-based policies and interventions.

HIV is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide, and every minute, a young woman is infected with HIV, as reported by UNAIDS. The impact of HIV on women and girls, compared to men and boys, is intrinsically connected to gender inequality, unequal power relations, gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination. Indeed, women who have experienced some form of violence are up to three times more at risk of HIV infection than those who have not. This is attributable to sexual violence, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and cases of forced or child marriage among vulnerable communities. Yet it is also the case because women across the world are often unable to negotiate the terms of their sexual relationships, including the use of condoms.

“Violence against women and HIV/AIDS are inextricably intertwined and mutually enforcing,” says Meryem Aslan, Manager of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. “Changes must centre on the empowerment of women and girls, and the transformation of social norms around what it means to be a man.”

At the conference Indonesian women’s rights activist Baby Rivona of the Indonesian Positive Women network (pictured left), spoke about the many forms of violence and discrimination faced by women living with HIV. “Among our members, there is a lot of violence after they [are diagnosed with HIV and reveal their status] … psychological violence from family members and partners, physical violence; and discrimination from the health services. The health service workers advise coerced sterilization, and yet women living with HIV don’t really understand its meaning.”

Meanwhile, in Kolkata, India, a parallel conference hub has been organized, to ensure that many of those who are unable to travel to Washington can take part in the discussions. The Kolkata Conference Hub will be supported by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which drew seed money from the International AIDS Society, and other agencies, namely UNAIDS. With its strong focus on sex work, the conference aims to highlight the forms of violence, coercion and discrimination faced by those in this group, and the need for violence to be factored into any approach to combat HIV among them.

“Addressing violence against sex workers requires an understanding about how violence actually increases the risk of exposure to HIV,” says Meena Seshu, director of sex workers’ rights organization, SANGRAM, which is participating in the event. “Helping sex workers tackle violence will, in turn, help them respond to reducing their vulnerability to HIV.”

Click here for more on the Kolkata event, more from Seshu on the intersection of violence and HIV in the sex work industry, and from Baby Rivona on discrimination and coerced sterilization in Indonesia.

For tools, resources, and information on gender equality dimensions of the AIDS epidemic, check UN Women’s Gender Equality and HIV/AIDS Web Portal, UN Women’s Factsheet on the linkages between HIV and violence against women, UN Trust Fund report on “Effective Approaches to Addressing the Intersections of Violence against Women and HIV/AIDS” and the Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women.