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Violence Against Women Linked to HIV Risk
email this pageprint this pageemail usMarcela Valente - Inter Press Service
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November 26, 2010



Buenos Aires - "My mother used to beat me. She would lock me away, and then she started chaining me to the table," says Elizabeth. Teresa recounts how she was seven months pregnant when her husband grabbed her by the hair, threw her to the ground and kicked her.

These testimonies from women living with HIV/AIDS were published in a report released this week in Buenos Aires, revealing the different forms of violence that most of these women face of the course of their lives.

The study "Two Sides of One Reality: Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay" states that 78 percent of the women with HIV/AIDS surveyed in the four countries had suffered some type of abuse.

When the women became infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS), many already had a long history of abuse and gender violence that made them more vulnerable, according to the study.

Seventy percent of the 399 HIV-positive women interviewed in the four countries said they had endured psychological abuse - the most widespread - manifest in humiliation, insults, mocking and scorn.

Likewise, 55.6 percent suffered physical violence from parents, stepparents, caretakers and then from boyfriends or husbands, which included punching, shoving, slapping, beating (with fists or objects), kicking, burning and choking.

The interviews were conducted in pairs. In Argentina, 10 women from the Buenos Aires Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS took part in the project. One of the interviewers, Caty Castillo, told IPS that many of the women surveyed did not consider the violence they had suffered as something negative.

"It even happened among us, the interviewers. When we answered the questionnaire among ourselves first, we realised that many of us had endured situations of violence and abuse - and we didn't see it as something bad," she admitted.

The women interviewed were identified only by their first names. Such as Griselda, of Uruguay, who says: "My mother liked to abuse me a lot. I don't know why. It wasn't slapping or beating. She used to gag me; she shoved sponges in my mouth."

Around 60 percent of the women interviewed had seen their mothers suffer aggression from the spouse or boyfriend, and then they themselves faced similar abuse from their own companions. "He put a knife to my throat, he cut my wrists, and he beat me out of jealousy," says Florence, also from Uruguay.

The study, compiled by physician Mabel Bianco and sociologist Andrea Mariño, of Argentina, states, "The family, supposed shelter for one's affective world, does not seem to be the safest environment for many of these women."

The experts are from the Argentine Foundation for Women's Studies and Research (FEIM), which worked on the interviews with the Brazilian organisation Gestos, the People's Education in Health Foundation in Chile, and Women and Health in Uruguay. Mariño explained to IPS that "the women who suffered violence over the course of their lives are more vulnerable to HIV infection because, in general, they lose autonomy, self-esteem and also the power to negotiate the use of condoms."

For example, a relatively large portion of the interviewed women (36.3 percent) said they had been victims of sexual violence, almost always at the hands of their husband or boyfriend, and sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence (32.8 percent).

"There is a 'naturalisation' of violence in the lives of many of these women from childhood. They don't register that this isn't normal, that it is a crime," she said.

The report contains several testimonies about sexual violence: "I didn't want to (have sex) when he was on drugs," says Sandra, a Uruguayan. "He would be staggering and he would want to do it. He forced me, and beat me, and I had to do it because he was the father of my children."

Many of the women interviewed also recalled episodes of sexual abuse in childhood that went beyond touching. "He (father) raped me from when I was five until I was seven or eight, and it was a very bad experience," says Iris, from Chile.

Castillo, the interviewer, agreed that most of the women who acknowledged they had been abused saw it as something "normal" because the perpetrators were close family members.

Despite the evident link between gender violence and HIV, the study warns about the "worrisome lack of official data" in the four countries, which it says prevents the experts from "determining the scope of the problem."

The study also lays out a panorama of the AIDS epidemic's traits across the Southern Cone region and highlights advances, such as the universalisation of treatment for HIV/AIDS and laws against domestic violence.

However, "There are no national government programmes that coordinate strategies for mitigating both pandemics," states the report, except in Brazil, where such a plan exists but has yet to be implemented.

When they are told they are HIV positive, most women react with surprise because they did not see themselves as part of a high-risk group because they were in stable, heterosexual relationships. "I thought this could never happen to me," says one woman.

According to the report, there is a lack of policy coordination aimed at stopping gender violence and promoting women's health, a fact that has repeatedly given rise to institutional violence.

One of the women interviewed in Argentina recalls that when her gynaecologist found out she was HIV positive, he refused to work with her anymore. "He said that he didn't see patients with HIV," she said.

Another woman, from Uruguay, who carries a Bible with her, says that when the physician, a woman, told her the HIV diagnosis, she also said: "You might read the Bible, but you're no saint."

Such mistreatment by medical professionals led some of the women to abandon any treatment at all for HIV/AIDS.

Faced with this situation, the researchers lay out 20 recommendations, including a call for comprehensive public policies that coordinate prevention and attention for both HIV/AIDS and abuse, from a gender perspective.



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