19 Aug 2010

Feminists are MIA when it comes to the battle against HIV/AIDS..

...according to this article from The Body. It's definitely food for thought when one considers just how the landscape of the battle against HIV/AIDS has altered over the decades. From being painfully taboo in the early 80s, to the hip awareness of the late 80s and 90s, to being old hat and largely unmentioned as the world moved through the late 90s and into the 20th Century. As the article points out, modern women see themselves as unaffected by this old bogey monster, and even our educated, socially aware young feminists don't see any link between the ongoing fight for women's rights and the HIV/AIDS pandemic ravaging the developing world.

I'm young/old enough to remember the terrifying advertising campaigns surrounding AIDS in the 80s, and the deadly seriousness with which the disease was approached. I remember at the age of 5, seeing a small pool of blood on the floor at the local swimming baths and as I approached it with interest as 5 year-olds are wont to do, my mum firmly instructing me NEVER to touch blood because that's how AIDS was carried, and AIDS KILLED you. That was pretty much all the warning I needed. I also remember 13 years later, at uni with all manner of smart, switched-on, brilliant young women, and one of my close friends asking, in all seriousness, "AIDS can be cured though, can't it?". I was stunned. Surely everyone knew AIDS was a killer, and that there was no known cure? Apparently not. That was my first warning that there had been a serious lapse in young women's awareness of HIV/AIDS.

I've often found it disturbing the way modern awareness campaigns about STDs don't even seem to mention HIV/AIDS any more, sending out the message that the most serious infection you're at risk of from unprotected sex is chlamydia. Risking infertility is certainly serious enough to warn young men and women about, but what about that other pesky disease that might, y'know, actually, uh, kill you? Someone suggested to me recently that because HIV/AIDs is so much more manageable thanks to AZT and drug cocktails, and people can happily live for 20 years plus following infection, it seems like scaremongering to still call it 'a killer'. I understood her point, but I think anyone who sees that as equalling 'a cure' for AIDS is still seriously fooling themselves. Yes, we can 'manage' the disease. But no, we can't cure it, and yes, it will still get you at some point - the treatments may be effective, but they are still just a stall. And yet, out of all the sexually active girls I know, including myself, less than half of us have ever been for a full sexual health check including an AIDS test. I'm glad to say I'm one of them, but it disturbs me that so many of my friends are so cavalier about their sexual health.

Quite apart from us privileged western girls though, what's more terrifying is how we're turning a blind eye to the way AIDS is ravaging the world's poorest, most disadvantaged women whilst we merrily cavort with our partners here in Britain. Nowhere are the effects of gender inequality seen more clearly than in Sub-Saharan Africa, where women account for 60% of people infected with HIV. Is it just because the mechanics of heterosexual sex mean women are more physically vulnerable to the virus? Apparently not:

"Women’s vulnerability to HIV in sub-Saharan Africa stems not only from their greater physiological susceptibility to heterosexual transmission, but also to the severe social, legal and economic disadvantages they often confront. A recent comprehensive epidemiological review undertaken in connection with the modes of transmission study in Lesotho found that sexual and physical violence is a key determinant of the country’s severe HIV epidemic. According to a recent survey, 47% of men and 40% of women in Lesotho say women have no right to refuse sex with their husbands or boyfriends."*

This seems to be an issue that us liberated western women are ignoring or just plain unaware of. In the late 90s and early 2000s, well-meaning aid workers attempting to educate African people about the dangers of AIDS/HIV transmission taught the 'A,B,C' approach. This stood for 'Abstain, Be Faithful, wear a Condom' - the idea being, I suppose, that if you didn't manage A or B, then C was the most crucial safety net. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that this seemingly common-sense teaching was being ignored. Why? Because those most at risk of infection, i.e. women, had absolutely no power to enforce it. Women have no right to abstain from sex, being expected to submit to it whenever their male partner wanted it. Women are expected to be sexually faithful - female genital mutilation being a prime example of how communities are willing to literally chop women up to ensure they do not enjoy sex and therefore will not stray from their husbands - but have no control or say over their husband's fidelity, and therefore no control over what sexual disease he may bring home and into the bedroom. And finally, women certainly do not have the power to enforce condom use. Why? Well, in the words of Sheree Usdin, writing in 'The No-Nonsense Guide to HIV/AIDS', "try negotiating safer sex with someone who will beat you black and blue because he thinks his dinner isn't cooked exactly right."

By pretending HIV/AIDs is no longer a problem, either for ourselves or the rest of the world, modern feminists are guilty of standing by while a destructive fire rages. It's time we got educated and got active again - if people could manage it in the 80s, with a recession, right-wing mania, and seriously bad hair to contend with, we can certainly do it again now.

*(Source: UNAIDS/WHO 2009 AIDS Epidemic Update)

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