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Q&A: ‘It’s Not Difficult to Bring About Social Change’

Johanna Son interviews GEETA RAO GUPTA* - TerraViva

BALI, Aug 14 2009 (IPS) - Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the Washington-based International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), explains to TerraViva’s Johanna Son why gender needs to be weaved more tightly into the response against HIV and AIDS.

”The epidemic is just feeding on the fault lines of inequality and discrimination that already existed in our society,” she said at the 9th International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, which was held Aug. 9-13 in Bali, Indonesia.

TERRAVIVA: There has been a conscious attempt at ICAAP to look at the social aspects and gaps behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Is this expected, or normal, that the focus on AIDS would first be very much on the biomedical aspects and only after some time does it go into the other aspects such as inequities? GEETA RAO GUPTA: My point is that those technical solutions (to HIV and AIDS), each of them independently, will have impact – but only on what technical intervention is meant for.

You need many of those happening simultaneously and all of those have to happen in the context of HIV treatment, prevention and care, the standard package of services…You can’t do one thing here and something else there in your country and hope to dismantle gender inequality. It is not going to happen.

All you will do is you will give some women access to credit (in the case of such programmes), which is what that programme is intended for. But will that access to credit reduce the vulnerability to HIV? No, because they have violence against them, you have men who don’t believe in equality, they have no access to education.

TERRAVIVA: You were saying that part of the weakness in the whole effort is that gender is often only seen as being about women and that this is a mistake women themselves make? GRG: Yes, all of us have all done it.

TERRAVIVA: What’s the role of that in the HIV context? GRG: So far, the way we have developed the understanding about gender and equality is by talking about women’s reality of that, how women experience inequality and how disadvantaged they are in access to productive resources like land, credit, employment, education. That was not wrong. That is good; that is true.

But it is also time now to see the other part of the equation because if you’re talking about sexual transmission of HIV, it’s two individuals, not one, right?

If a lot of the disadvantages that women are experiencing in sexual relationships is because of men in some ways, because of the way masculinity is constructed, then while we’re trying to help women, we also need to change the norms of masculinity, male sexuality, work with men to understand the ways in which gender puts pressure on them to be a particular way, just as it puts pressure on women to be a particular way.

So (the thinking is) men must be providers, men must be assertive in sexual interactions, men must know about sex – these are things that society perpetuates. And so men, in order to be seen as men, have to live up to those norms, and when they do so, they actually fuel the epidemic.

So how can we begin to have the community see that relationship and its negative consequences and begin to see how we can change? How can we make them more nurturing, more caring? They have to understand that the consequences of violence against women are not just against women; they’re against everybody.

TERRAVIVA: You’re saying that there has not been enough focus on looking into… GRG: On looking at both men and women, and helping men and women to come together to come up with solutions. We don’t live in communities of only women. We live in communities of women and men.

TERRAVIVA: Is that like saying that it helps perpetuate the notion of women as victims, as objects? GRG: As objects, and it puts all the pressure on them to come up with the solution. But there is this other half of the equation that you’re not holding responsible.

TERRAVIVA: There’s been a lot of discussion here about the biomedical approach where you say, ‘this is the problem, this is the drug.’ But there is no drug for changing stereotypes. GRG: There is no single magic bullet, but we do know what the ingredients are. You can identify what are the ingredients to lead to social change and success.

One ingredient is a legal enabling environment, so you cannot be criminalising and discriminating and stigmatising because then no matter what you do, you’re not going to succeed, because the environment is against you, right?

So you need laws that decriminalise, that protect people’s rights, a human rights framework, that’s the first precondition. (It’s) necessary, but not sufficient. The second precondition is that you need services available to all, so treatment, care, all the AIDS services. The third precondition is that communities be involved in coming up with solutions.

TERRAVIVA: But isn’t changing society’s prejudices like asking us to, in a way, go against human nature? GRG: No, why? I’ve seen this happen in some small local communities in Mumbai, India. For example, I have seen a poor community of people start out by saying ‘no, no, no, women cannot be made equal to men, it will ruin our social fabric, this is the way society is organised.’

And then we started explaining to them that if your daughter gets married, if she doesn’t have information about how to protect herself, if she cannot leave a relationship that she knows is risky, if she does not have a way to stay economically independent and her husband is HIV-positive, she’s stuck. She’s going to get ill, and she’s going to die.

And then your grandchildren will be orphaned. When you lay out the links with women’s empowerment and its implications for their community, people want to change. I have seen those same fathers stand in a line to say ‘please educate my daughter, please educate her about sex, please tell her about condoms.’

It’s not difficult to bring about social change. I think we don’t give enough credit to communities and to people. We get stuck with politicians at the top who talk about ancient cultures and how we must be. However, in everyday life, we are not living by that ancient culture, but by the realities of our lives.

*TerraViva Coverage of ICAAP 2009 (

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