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CARIBBEAN: Culture of Sexual Coercion Exposes Women to HIV

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Mar 12 2009 (IPS) - The fight against widespread sexual violence in the Caribbean has been joined by a high-profile new women’s coalition that warns it could be a major reason for the spread of HIV among women and girls in the region.

The Caribbean Coalition on Women, Girls and AIDS (CCWA) said “the role of sexual violence in HIV transmission is becoming clearer. One study found that for nearly 50 percent of adolescent girls, their first sexual experience was forced.”

Under the theme “Women and Men: United to End Violence against Women”, the CCWA has pledged to vigorously challenge not just violence against women but all aspects of female vulnerability to HIV.

A broad coalition of women including Dr. Jean Ramjohn-Richards, the wife of Trinidadian President George Maxwell Richards, Governor General of St. Lucia Dame Pearlette Louisy and ex-Barbados foreign minister Dame Billie Miller, the coalition cited growing concerns that existing AIDS strategies are not adequately addressing women’s needs.

“Women now comprise 51 percent of adults living with HIV… Current AIDS responses have often ignored the social, cultural and economic factors that place women at risk, and those HIV programmes that seek to redress the imbalance and inequity have been inconsistent and haphazard,” the group said in a statement.

Official statistics show that in countries like Antigua and Barbuda, Haiti, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic, one in six women between the ages of 15 and 24 became sexually active before the age of 15.

Dawn Foderingham, the regional partnerships advisor for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), says the region needs to take “collective action in addressing violence against women.”

The regional programme director at UNIFEM’s Caribbean office, Roberta Clarke, said that while there have been gains in equality between men and women, “inequalities persist and beliefs and practices deeply rooted in our cultures perpetuate the vulnerability of women and girls to certain harm.”

For example, she notes the education system continues to “fail many of our children as we teach to the test and not to principles of self-esteem and respect for others, the foundational elements for personal growth and societal achievement.”

She said the socialising of men, whether in homes, churches, schools and through popular culture, continues to emphasise aggression, power and control as core aspects of masculinity.

“For boys and men, masculinity is still associated with risk taking, with power and control, with early sexual activity and with multiple partnerships,” according to Clarke.

“For girls and women, socio-economic dependency, whether expected or a consequence of circumstances, interferes or impedes the ability to demand safe sexual practice,” she said.

Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, for example, have among the world’s highest homicide rates and higher than global averages of sexual violence.

“We know that the Caribbean is an unsafe space for women. That idea is deeply rooted in our psyches and determines where we go, when we go, what we wear, to whom we speak. The ever-present threat of physical harm restricts our choices and terrorises our minds,” Clarke said.

She cited a survey in 2000 by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) which revealed that nearly half of all young girls reported that their first sexual encounter was forced or coerced.

The study noted that violence, or simply the threat of violence, increases women’s vulnerability to HIV by making it difficult or impossible to negotiate safer sex and condom use. It also affects women’s expectations in relationships and can prevent women from accessing HIV prevention, care and treatment services.

“How did we get to this place where one in three women experience abuse in intimate relationships? How did we get to this place of gang rapes and trafficking in girls and women?” Clarke asked.

Last year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a campaign “UNite to End Violence against Women” cognisant of that fact that “violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable”.

The seven-year campaign, ending in 2015 to coincide with the target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), seeks to raise public awareness and increase political will and resources for preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls.

Clarke said for UNIFEM, two regional priorities are ending violence against women and halting and reversing the spread of HIV and that the support for CCWA brings these two together in a coherent way.

“Current AIDS responses have often ignored the social, cultural and economic factors that place women at risk, and those HIV programmes that seek to redress the imbalance and inequity have been inconsistent and haphazard,” said the group which has the backing of UNAIDS’s regional office, the Caribbean Caribbean Association for Feminist Research & Action (CAFRA) and the Centre for Gender and Development Studies (GDS) at the University of the West Indies.

A statement issued by CCWA said its work will include programmes addressing sex work, data collection, capacity building on gender and AIDS with the objective of supporting gender mainstreaming in regional and national level HIV/AIDS policy.

Its mandate would also be to convene and create linkages and partnerships nationally and regionally with women’s rights activists, HIV/AIDS activists, and human rights community as well as policy makers.

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