The Deadly Intersection of HIV and Violence Against Women and Children


Let me start of by giving you a truly horrifying statistic. After you've read it, stop and think about what it means.

In South Africa, a woman is raped every 26 seconds.

Shocking, no? Let me add to it. Maybe you know all this already, but lest we get complacent I'm going to tell you again.

One out of three women in the world will be physically, sexually or emotionally abused in her lifetime.

20% of girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. 10% of boys will experience the same tragedy.

In South Africa, a child is raped every 24 minutes.

You know someone who has been abused. Probably several someones. Someone in your family, your circle of friends, looking back at you from the mirror. Violence against women and children (VAWC) is a universal phenomenon that doesn't follow socio-economic or cultural lines but that potentially has disastrous consequences for the well-being of its victims in all circumstances.

One of these consequences is often HIV/AIDS (and sometimes the violence is also a result of HIV/AIDS). So in a country whose people are experiencing an incident of sexual violence every 26 seconds and whose population has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world (18.8% as of 2006), it's impossible to ignore the connections. Or the fact that something has to be done about both crises—violence against women and children and HIV/AIDS—if the people are to survive and realize the dream that began when the apartheid regime was finally defeated.

Earlier this month I went to South Africa to meet activists who are working to change the deadly intersection of VAWC and HIV. Some come at the work from the VAWC angle, and some from HIV. But all of them have decided that the double scourge of violence and AIDS is the battle that South Africa now must win, the one that has replaced the fight against apartheid.

Before I left for South Africa, I kept wondering if South Africans would see HIV/AIDS as the primary issue facing their new democracy. Everywhere, people wore beaded red ribbons and mentioned HIV as the most important concern in South Africa. I even saw billboards for Project RED, which partners with corporations such as Gap and American Express to secure donations from certain products to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

For me, one of the most interesting displays of the common fight against HIV/AIDS was in Soweto, the township outside Johannesburg that gained infamy for a student uprising in 1960 during which almost 70 students were gunned down by police. On the drive in to Soweto I saw signs for HIV testing and couples counseling and Project RED billboards. But I also noticed a lot of funeral homes and signs for funeral financing. It struck me that the omnipresent references to death were a sign that people are still dying at very high rates in Soweto. These deaths can literally break the financial back of surviving family members, not just because of funeral costs but because of the loss of breadwinners and caretakers. In the end, I felt that many South Africans outside my circle of AIDS professionals see the threat that AIDS really is to their country.

But I also wondered if the incredibly high prevalence of violence against women and children would be spoken about. If AIDS has associated stigma, I think it's possible that VAWC has even greater stigma. Its perpetrators are usually family members or trusted members of the community, its victims ordinarily society's lowest rung—women and children. There is a culture of silence surrounding VAWC that must be challenged and ultimately broken. That's why the Global AIDS Alliance has called our VAWC campaign "Zero Tolerance." We must begin talking about VAWC, challenging the belief that it is a private issue or that women bring it on themselves, changing gender norms and social expectations that devalue women and children, creating a new culture that refuses to tolerate violence and protects the right to health and safety of all people.

As it turned out, I saw few signs that the country has acknowledged VAWC as a national problem in the same way it has with HIV/AIDS. Yet, in the end, I came home with high hopes for South African women and children simultaneously at risk of HIV/AIDS and violence. There are so many groups doing outstanding work to create a culture of zero tolerance. The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has a new women's rights program, which has incorporated violence into TAC's world-famous grassroots work and includes monitoring sexual violence court cases brought by TAC's members. Sonke Gender Justice Network is conducting innovative programs that address the intersection of violence and HIV/AIDS, including a novel program to involve men in Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) and women's HIV treatment. And the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation is lending its research expertise to a national advocacy group working to pass a good Sexual Offenses Bill and to create a strong national action plan on gender-based violence, both of which contain language on links with HIV/AIDS.

Hopefully these outstanding efforts and a slowly emerging public awareness of VAWC will combine with South Africans' commitment to ending HIV/AIDS and lead to empowerment of the entire population, something that democracy alone has thus far failed to do. In the meantime, I'm inspired to continue our Zero Tolerance campaign with renewed vigor, because I know that the links between VAWC and HIV/AIDS are real and important to those on the ground. And I know that these people are grateful for our work in support of their goals, which may ultimately help liberate South Africa from the bonds of preventable death and injury, strengthening the entire country for the continued fight for human rights, economic independence and choice.

If you'd like to read more details about my trip and the groups with which I met, check out the blog I kept.

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