11 July 2012

Tanzania: Gender Violence Fuels HIV/Aids Infections in Women

ANY person who intentionally transmits HIV to another person commits an offence and on conviction the culprit shall be liable to life imprisonment.

This amounts to gender violence and is partially what the HIV and AIDS Prevention Control Act (2007) seeks to curb.

The law is also tailored to provide incisive prevention, care and control of HIV and AIDS and promotion of public health to persons living with HIV and AIDS.

A national report on HIV/AIDS prevalence shows that by the end of 2004 it was estimated that 1.3 million Tanzanians were positive to HIV/AIDS with the infection rate standing at seven per cent among the sexually active age group.

Fortunately, a lot of water has gone down the bridge since that time. Those were the dog days when even the modern-day anti-retral viral drugs were not readily accessible to those who need them. The pandemic was declared a national health hazard in 1999.

Today, however, two million Tanzanians live with the disease. Fortunately, the infection rate has been scaled down to five per cent at national level, thanks to sustained campaigns by the state, NGOs and other stakeholders in the welfare of Tanzanians.

However, some people charge that some NGOs, institutions and individuals misappropriate donated funds that target alleviating the predicament of AIDS orphans and People Living With AIDS (PLWA).

They are bitter that most of the money is spent on seminars, travel allowances and snacks. The general demand is that all donated AIDS funds be channeled through the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare instead of falling into the hands of officials from TACAIDS, Global Fund or other NGOs.

As global efforts to find a cure for the pandemic continue, some people are of the view that all PLWA be given condoms free of charge. The general belief here is that the move would help whittle down fresh HIV infections. A law on AIDS is already on board.

The HIV and AIDS Prevention Control Act (2007) stipulates that "Any person who willfully breaches any provision relating to safe procedures and practices commits an offence and on conviction shall be liable to a fine of not less than 200,000/- or three months imprisonment.

However, it adds that, "A person shall not be compelled to undergo HIV testing and that pregnant women and every other person attending a health care facility shall be counselled and offered voluntary HIV testing.

It also says that all health practitioners, traditional birth attendants and any other persons attending patients shall be encouraged to undergo HIV testing.

"Any health practitioner who compels any person to undergo HIV testing or procures HIV testing to another person without the knowledge of that other person commits an offence.

"However," the Act points out that, "this can happen if the sick is unconscious and unable to give consent. The medical officer reasonably believes that such a test is clinically necessary or desirable in the interest of the sick person.

"The results of such test shall be confidential and shall be released only to the person tested or to the parent or guardian of a child; the spouse of the sick or a recognized guardian. The results can also be given to a sexual partner of an HIV tested person or a court of law - if applicable."

The Act condemns sexual violence against women in the light of the fact that social vices such as rape result in HIV/AIDS transmission. In the mundane sense, the term "violence against women" means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts.

Coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life is regarded as violence in the legal world. "Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men.

This often results in the prevention of the full advancement of women. Violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into subordinate positions compared with men," a UN declaration (1993) says.

HIV-transmission risk increases during violent or forced-sex situations. The abrasions caused through forced penetration facilitate entry of the virus - a fact that is especially true for adolescent girls, whose reproductive tracts are less fully developed (UNAIDS).

While the full extent of violence against women is not known, current research from the World Health Organization indicates that in some countries one in four women may experience sexual violence by an intimate partner in her life time.

Added to this is the violence that women experience from strangers. Several studies from different parts of the world indicate that up to one third of adolescent girls reported that their first sexual experience was coerced.

Many are married at a young age to older men, and the power inequities inherent in these relationships can lead to violence or the threat of it (UNIFEM). The risk of violence and sexual abuse is high among girls who are orphaned by AIDS, many of whom face a heightened sense of hopelessness along with a lack of emotional and financial support.

Socially disadvantaged employees such as domestic workers, barmaids and prostitutes often get raped increasing the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission. Fear of violence is an undermining factor in terms of seeking treatment. Women may hesitate to be tested for HIV or fail to return for the results because they are afraid that disclosing their HIV-positive status may result in physical violence.

Sometimes it results in expulsion from their home or social ostracism. Studies from many countries, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, have found these fears to be well founded. Anecdotal evidence based on stories by women both emotionally and physically abused upon disclosure, reported by the media and related in other settings, further attest to this reality for many women.

Gender roles grant men sexual licence, excuse male promiscuity and give women little sexual authority. Society assigns women the task of care giving as part of their gender roles. As a result, women are disproportionately providing the necessary day-to-day care to a large number of people falling sick with AIDS-related illness. Married men often pick up HIV outside the marriage and then infect their wives.

In rural areas, where women are responsible for subsistence farming, their care burdens result in, less productive time on the farm, thereby threatening the family's food security. The result is that children are withdrawn from school to provide extra labour. This creates another generation of uneducated people, promotes the cycle of poverty and increases the risk of AIDS.

With men being the first to catch the infection, it follows that they are the first to fall sick and die. The widow is left on her own- the product of gender based society that has denied her education, skills-training, and access to resources that would permit her to fend for herself and her family. In polygamous marriages; when a spouse/partner is infected with HIV/AIDS, the likelihood of that person infecting all the other partners and unborn children is so high.

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