What Is a Woman Worth? The Feminization of AIDS

Marcy Bloom

HIV infections among women and girls have risen in every part of the world in recent years. The numbers point to a startling reality - the HIV/AIDS pandemic is inextricably linked to the brutal effects of sexism and gender inequality, most pronounced in Africa.

What is a woman worth?

HIV
infections among women and girls have risen in every part of the world
in recent years. The numbers point to a fundamental and startling
reality – the HIV/AIDS pandemic is inextricably linked to the brutal
effects of sexism and gender inequality, most pronounced in Africa.

Consider these statistics: The latest reports
from the UNAIDS (Dec. 2007) show 33.2 million people are living with
HIV throughout the world. Sub-Saharan Africa has more than two-thirds
(22.6 million) of the total number of HIV infections. Sixty-two per
cent (14 million) of those infected are women and adolescent girls.
Seventy-five per cent of all HIV-positive women in the world are
African.Photo by Chuck BiggerPhoto by Chuck Bigger

Why are we allowing women and girls to
die from this preventable and treatable disease? What is a woman worth
in our world today?

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Gender Discrimination At the Core

"The toll on women and girls presents Africa and the world with a
practical and moral challenge, which places gender at the center of the
human condition. The practice of ignoring gender analysis has turned
out to be lethal…what has happened to women is a gross and palpable violation of human rights," said Stephen Lewis, former UN Secretary-General’s Envoy to Africa, at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain in 2002.

Many
forms of violence against African women contribute to, and worsen, the
devastation of women and girls from the HIV/AIDS virus. Women and girls
are often ill informed about sexual and reproductive matters and are
more likely than men and boys to be uneducated and illiterate.
Physiologically, women are two to four times more likely than men to
become infected with HIV, but they lack social power to insist on safer
sex or to reject sexual advances.

Gender Violence and Poverty are Disease Risks

Gender-based
violence and harmful traditional practices are some of the major risks
for contracting the HIV virus. These include sexual violence, marital
rape, domestic violence, early child marriage of young girls to older
men, forced marriage, wife inheritance, widow cleansing, polygamy, and
female genital mutilation.

Poverty forces many
women into subsistence sex work or transactional relationships that
preclude negotiating condom use. For economic reasons, women are often
unable to leave a relationship, even if they know that their partner
has been infected or exposed to HIV. In many African countries, women
are designated as minors, lack their own earning power, are unable to
obtain credit and cannot own or inherit property.

The
oppressive economic dependency of women on men is a core aspect of
gender relations in this region. This critical issue must be taken on
with real solutions and basic societal changes by governments, AIDS
programs, non-profit groups, and, most importantly, the women
themselves.

Thoraya Obaid, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund
(UNFPA), said in 2006: "Women and girls are vulnerable to AIDS not
because of their individual behavior, but because of the discrimination
and violence they face, the unequal power relations. Even being married
is a risk factor for women…Female HIV infections are on the rise in
Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, as well as in Africa. And AIDS
is the leading cause of death for 25-34-year-old African-American women
in the United States…only by addressing the needs and human rights of
women and ensuring their full participation will we change the course
of this disease."

Cures To Reverse the Spread of HIV/AIDS

So what is to be done?

To
reverse the spread of AIDS, women must have greater control of their
decisions, bodies and lives-as well as their governments and public
policies.

In 2004, UNAIDS launched the Global Coalition
on Women and AIDS, a worldwide alliance of civil society groups,
governments, UN organizations and networks of women living with
HIV/AIDS. The coalition’s platform calls for education, literacy, and
economic rights for women; equal access to antiretroviral treatment;
access to sexual and reproductive health services; changes in harmful
gender stereotypes; and zero tolerance for gender-based violence.

Three-quarters of all new HIV infections are sexually transmitted
between men and women. The behaviors of men are critical to prevention
efforts in Africa. They hold overwhelming power in decisions about
sexual matters, including whether to have sex or to use condoms. In
many societies, women are expected to know little about such matters
and those who raise the issue of condom use risk accusations of being unfaithful or promiscuous.

Photo by Chuck BiggerPhoto by Chuck BiggerHIV
care and contraceptive management programs — two important elements of
women’s health — must begin to work together according to UNFPA. For
too long they have separated themselves because of the politicizations
and funding aspects of both of these issues. This is clearly
shortsighted, if women’s lives are to be saved.
Equal access to
antiretroviral treatment will help to safeguard a woman’s well being
and prevent HIV transmission to her children. Ethics and human rights
demand that women who are HIV positive are able to make informed
contraceptive decisions, including the ability to prevent unwanted
pregnancy. Voluntary contraception is integral to stemming the HIV
pandemic.

Hard Choices Make Hard Policy

Some
of the most effective steps to stemming the feminization of HIV/AIDS
are not about healthcare per se but about broad social changes. Dr.
Chinua Akuke of the Board of Directors of the Constituency for Africa
in Washington, D.C. and an adjunct professor of public health at George
Washington University, said: "The key question is whether African
leaders and elite are ready to make hard choices that would slow down
the rate of infections among women…The key is to focus on practical
solutions to a problem that can only get worse if nothing is done."

She describes ten critical steps for African leaders.

  • Mount a comprehensive information, education and communication campaign
    against risk-behaving practices of men that put women at risk of HIV
    infection, with bans on sugar daddies, the rape of young girls by
    schoolteachers and the molestation of young girls by their own family
    members.
  • Address cultural practices that put
    women at disadvantage, such as women’s subservience in sexual matters,
    the lack of property rights for widows and single women, the culture of
    wife inheritance after widowhood and the lack of opportunity for women
    to discuss sexual risks with their husbands.
  • Invest in the long-term education of girls and women to end women’s disproportionate poverty.
  • Build enabling environments for empowering African women to control
    their own generated income and to overcome cultural taboos and tightly
    controlled economic choices that severely constrict the capacity of
    African women to negotiate safer personal behaviors.
  • Create political space for women. In order to fight AIDS, women must
    be in decision-making positions in government and in civil society.
  • Develop the necessary legal framework to protect women from
    discrimination and the lack of due process. Law reform on rape, sexual
    molestation, domestic violence, favors-for-forced sexual relations and
    property rights are crucial, as are bans on discrimination of
    individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
  • Establish
    public health services that are friendly and accessible to women, and
    run by women for women in a true feminist model. The fear of violence
    and lack of confidentiality prevent many women from accessing services
    for HIV or for other sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis
    that facilitate HIV transmission.
  • Make
    gender issues a major priority of international development assistance.
    National budgets should devote resources to ending gender inequalities
    and creating opportunities and protections for women.
  • Lead the fight against sexual violence against women and put in place
    functional laws that deny sanctuary to the perpetrators of violence.
    The law must punish rapists and abusers — perpetrators who set off a
    chain of events that leave women emotionally scarred and at risk of
    HIV/AIDS.
  • Fight against widespread
    poverty with programs that target women. Poverty is a major reason why
    women knowingly engage in high-risk behaviors. The feminization of
    AIDS is closely intertwined with women’s low status, deprivation and
    harsh living conditions and macroeconomic policies must create the
    opportunity for women to escape poverty.

Misogyny Kills

 

Women need gender-focused and
women-sensitive approaches to halting HIV/AIDS, according to UNFPA.
Solutions must be African-based and African-implemented, and women must
be integral to all of it. Women must be able to gain more control in
decisions affecting their lives.

Young men who
learn to respect women and understand their responsibilities in halting
HIV/AIDS are more likely to use condoms. Husbands can — and must — be
enlisted to protect their wives and future children against HIV and
other sexually transmitted infections.

What
we are really addressing in HIV-AIDS is the need to end misogyny-ending
sexist attitudes and behaviors against women that violate their very
beings.

What is a woman worth in this world? What are 14
million women worth? They are worth absolutely everything to
themselves, their families, their communities, their countries-and
their world. We desperately need their vitality, contributions,
insights, and power. Let us begin with the personal and political
empowerment of the women of Africa and let our African sisters know
that they are not alone in their struggle for respect, dignity and life.

This article first appeared in On the Issues Magazine, a feminist, progressive magazine newly launched as an Internet publication.

To share your thoughts about how the U.S. can better prioritize global women’s health, join our online forum on Tuesday, June 3rd, from 1pm to 4pm EST!

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”

Commentary Human Rights

Love, Respect, Accountability: What We Need in This Time of Tragedy and Crisis

Jodi Jacobson

Speaking up, speaking out, changing systems... This is not disrespect or lack of love and support. It is the essence of the struggle for the rights of all people. It is democracy.

In a time of great strife, in which those who seek to divide us have a very large platform, I remember that these things are all true:

You can oppose an illegitimate or unnecessary war, and still individually and collectively honor and love the troops that serve.

You can honor and love the troops that serve, but protest the ways in which war is waged and abhor the behavior of individual soldiers who abuse human rights and dehumanize the civilians in a population. You can honor and love and support the troops that serve but still work to change the systems, and hold politicians and individuals responsible for crimes they perpetrate.

You can honor and love any and all public servants—as I do deeply—but still abhor systemic problems in civil services that lead to racist behaviors and outcomes (or those based on class, immigrant status, gender, ability, or any other basis for discrimination).

You can honor, love, and respect police, but abhor the militarization of our police forces; racial and ethnic profiling; abuses of fines, fees, and arrests that both target and most adversely affect the poorest individuals; and the growing dependency of the budgets for police forces based on fines drawn from those who can least afford it. You can honor, love, and respect the police, but still understand why there is a great level of distrust of policing in some communities. You can honor, love, and respect the police, but still recognize real abuses of power by individuals or groups among them, and seek to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

You can honor and love police for putting their lives on the line for public safety, but recognize the very deeply legitimate concerns of movements—like Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights groups, women’s rights groups, LGBTQ rights groups, and others for whom policing often is not about public safety, but is itself a source of fear—because law enforcement is and has been too often used against these groups in ways that are disrespectful, demeaning, and sometimes deadly.

You can honor, respect, and love the police, but support the work of Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights groups, women’s rights groups, and LGBTQ rights groups, and defend them against blame for the behavior of someone acting in their name who is not actually acting in their name at all.

You can honor and respect the work of prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials, but recognize when the systems in which they are working are not working for the people or to promote justice, or when individuals within those systems operate more on bias than on integrity.

You can protest and advocate for change in any and all of these systems without dishonoring the individuals within them. Indeed, by protesting and seeking to make them better, you make the world better for those within and outside of law enforcement and, hopefully, promote a more universal justice.

You can and we all must honor and treasure the freedoms of speech and of assembly, and abhor violence, while also recognizing that sometimes it is perpetrated by people, like veterans, whose own needs for health care, love, and honor have not been met by the country that sent them to war, or by people who feel so alienated that they—wrongly but nonetheless—resort to violence.

You can be confused by or even irritated by something you don’t understand, but it is on you, not others, to try to understand it. As Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” Read, discuss, challenge yourself. Try to open yourself up to what may seem like radical ideas. Make yourself vulnerable to learning. If you don’t understand the movement for Black lives, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, then listen to the very people fighting for their rights in order to better understand them. You may have started from a very different place than they do; you may stand in a very different place today. The issues may seem alien at first. But just because you don’t have cancer does not mean cancer does not exist. Try hard to understand why there is distance, what you don’t understand, and what you can—what we all must—do to narrow that distance in understanding each other.

We can love, honor, and respect each other and still recognize and raise awareness of our collective weaknesses. Indeed, that is the essence of progress and of democracy. Don’t fight it. Try to help it along.

People are human and therefore flawed. The systems we create also are therefore often flawed. We need mutual love and respect, along with vigorous debate and sometimes protest, to right the wrongs that are the inevitable result of our flawed selves and our flawed systems.

Love, honor, respect, and accountability: We need them all. Accountability, along with freedom, is the essence of a functioning democracy and part of the struggle for justice. The right to speak, the right to protest, the right to agitate for changes in systems that are flawed because we are all flawed in some way. The right to make things better.

Speaking up, speaking out, changing systems… This is not disrespect or lack of love and support. It is the essence of the struggle for the rights of all people. It is democracy. Some will tell you that in speaking out you are being disrespectful, but the opposite is true. You are respecting the many who have fought and given their lives—and who continue to be placed in harm’s way—on behalf of all of us so that we may all exercise our basic freedoms.

Let’s embrace the struggle. We can love, honor, respect police and other public servants, politicians, soldiers, and ourselves, and still work to hold them and ourselves accountable. These things are all true. I can hold these true simultaneously.

Can we all hold these things true simultaneously? I hope so, because I fear our failure to do so will only result in more violence and hatred.