Just two decades ago, the world first learned of a new disease affecting homosexuals in major cities across the United States. In 1985, Rock Hudson, an actor and the epitome of a leading man, announced that he had AIDS and died from the disease shortly thereafter. In his death, Rock Hudson became the face of AIDS: gay, white, male, urban and affluent. In those early and dark days of AIDS, when many were quick to pass judgment and turn their backs on the sick and dying, there were thousands of volunteers, in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who defied convention and cared for those needing their support and compassion. It was a time that brought out the best—and certainly the worst—that our brothers and sisters in Christ had to offer. Today the face of AIDS is a woman’s face. At least half of the 40 million people infected with HIV in the world are women. The number is almost 60% in Africa.
Millions of those infected with HIV are young people only 15-24 years old. They now account for half of all new infections. Perhaps most disturbing of all, in sub-Saharan Africa, young women (15-24 years) account for 75% of HIV infections and are three to six times more likely to become infected than boys their same age. So, why is AIDS now a woman’s disease? What makes women, especially young girls, so vulnerable? Why have our efforts to protect them failed so miserably? Most importantly, where do we go from here? In 1988, the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the first Bush Administration was quoted as saying, “AIDS does to societies (and I might add to our churches) what it does to the human body. It finds the weakest points and attacks there.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the disproportionate impact of the AIDS epidemic on women and girls.
The skyrocketing rates of HIV infection in women have focused our attention not only on the issue of violence against women, but on a growing recognition that women’s and girl’s vulnerability to HIV infection is exacerbated by deep-rooted and pervasive gender inequalities— particularly violence against women. In poor communities across America and poor countries around the world, a majority of women has experienced violence in some form in their lives. For millions of women, the experience or fear of violence is a daily reality. The threat of HIV/AIDS, especially among poor women, presents a whole new set of challenges for those in public health, and more importantly, for those in the pulpit. Violence against women and the AIDS epidemic are inextricably linked. Indeed, AIDS is an act of violence against women. Not only do women represent half of those who are infected, but also are the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable, and without question, “the least of these.” Violence against women is a pervasively global phenomenon. It manifests in physical, sexual, and psychological violence.
Rape in many parts of the world is commonplace, and is often assumed to occur as a violent attack by strangers. In reality, most forced sex is committed by individuals known to the victim, such as an intimate partner, male family members, acquaintances, and individuals in position of authority.
For many girls and young women, their first sexual encounter is coerced. While abstinence is the prevention method of choice outside of marriage, it is almost impossible for a woman in certain cultures, even Christian cultures, to deny her husband inside the marriage. “My husband hated condom use. He never allowed it. He would beat me often. He used to beat me when I refused to sleep with him. He wouldn’t use a condom. He said when we are married, how can we use a condom? It’s a wife’s duty to have sex with her husband because that is the main reason you come together.
But there should be love. When I knew about his girlfriends, I feared that I would get infected with HIV. But he didn’t listen to me. I tried to insist on using a condom, but he refused. So I gave in because I really feared [him]” (a 31-year-old Ugandan woman). Source: Human Rights Watch 2003(14) Gender and sexual norms between men and women play a central role in violence against women and the spread of HIV.
In many societies, manhood is defined in terms of providing for the family, honor, respect, and being in control. An ideal woman is defined in terms of being submissive, disciplined, respectful, and passive. While mass media and public education campaigns have been undertaken at global and country levels to address changing gender roles and raise awareness of violence against women and HIV/AIDS, their impact on changes at the community level would arguably be much more effective if supported and/or directed by the Church. The bottom line is that unless we address the underlying causes that place women at risk of infection, like gender inequity and poverty, we will never stop the spread of AIDS. Take help from telephone psychologist.
No matter how many billions we spend, we will barely slow the epidemic down apart from a transformation of heart, mind, and culture. God commands us to care for one another as brothers and sisters, male and female, black and white, rich and poor. While the challenges before us are great, so are the opportunities. A better, safer life for women and girls around the world will be a better life for us all. _Sandy L. Thurman is President and CEO of the International AIDS Trust in Washington, D.C. Ms. Thurman served as Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy and the first Presidential Envoy for AIDS Cooperation. Previously, she served as the Director of Advocacy Programs for the Task Force for Child Survival and Development at The Carter Center, and as Executive Director of AIDS Atlanta, one of the largest AIDS service organizations in the U.S._