This World AIDS Day we recognize the importance of addressing Gender-Based Violence to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS

By Dr. Judy Bigby

Today it is fitting that we recognize World AIDS Day in the midst of the campaign to end violence against women. Globally, women and girls ages 15 to 25 are at higher risk of HIV than any other group. Every week 1,745 young women in South Africa acquire new HIV infections. Their rate of infection is more than three times higher than among young men the same age. Adolescent girls represent 66 percent of 10 to 19 year olds who are HIV positive.  Unless new HIV infection rates among young women decrease, it will remain a challenge to reduce the rate of new infections in South Africa.

Key to the reduction of HIV in young women are efforts to address gender-based violence and women’s inequality. November 25th was the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women and marked the beginning of a 16-day campaign to end violence against women.

The link between violence against women and HIV is strong. Sexual violence, coercion, and controlling behavior of men contribute to women’s risk of HIV. Once infected women who experience intimate partner violence are less likely to take their medications than women in non-violent relationships are. One report estimates that 16 percent of HIV infections in women could be prevented if women did not experience sexual violence.

Young women are also at risk for acquiring HIV because of their economic status and dependence on older men. South Africa launched the SHE conquers campaign in 2016 to prevent HIV and unwanted pregnancy among adolescent girls and young women, keep them in school, fight sexual and gender-based violence, empower them and their male partners. Involving male partners is an important part of the strategy to reduce HIV among young women.

South Africa Partners is proud to have piloted a program for adolescent boys and girls and young women and men together in Johannesburg as a partner with the PEPFAR Determined Resilient Empowered AIDS-free Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) program. The program, an empowerment camp, includes facilitated discussions to examine gender norms and dynamics and provides direction for creating gender equality in everyday behaviors.  The program provides access to HIV testing but also empowers both young men and women to take responsibility for their own behaviors and to remain in school and understand their options for the future.  

We believe that an explicit gender-based approach to preventing HIV is necessary to reverse the trend of HIV infections in young women. Programs must do more than recognize gender differences and inequalities but must also be transformative so that the gender norms and dynamics reflect gender equality. Thanks to all who are supporting efforts to stop new HIV infections in young women.