Receiving an HIV diagnosis is often experienced in terms of violence. Stigma is violence: and it is often the first symptom of HIV, manifesting as shame, guilt and blame. Those feelings are experienced today, here in the UK. Many of the newly diagnosed women I meet tell me: “I would rather have cancer than HIV”. I find it really saddening, especially when HIV treatment is in most cases more successful and easier to take than cancer treatment. And I do really hate making comparison between experiences of illnesses.
For many women, in this country, and around the world, the link between violence and HIV is extremely direct. Women in violent relationships are much more likely to become HIV positive:
1)When a relationship is violent and sex is coerced women cannot negotiate safer sex.
2) Forced sex is more likely to cause tears and injuries to the vagina creating routes for HIV to get
into the body.
3) Men who are violent have often other high risk behaviours: multiple sex partners and drugs and alcohol use.
Inequality is also a form of violence. It is not surprising that out of 4.5 million young people (16 to 24) with HIV 3 millions are young women, mainly concentrated in Subsaharan Africa. The links between poverty, violence against women and girls, and HIV are easily visible.
Violence does not stop when one gets an HIV diagnosis. Revealing we have HIV can start a violent response. Tragically this is especially true for those of us who are diagnosed during pregnancy. An HIV diagnosis can also make violence escalate. As women living with HIV escaping an abusive and violent relationship is very difficult. The fear of our HIV status being made public is paralysing, alongside the fear of not finding another partner who will accept us and love us, as we have HIV. The shame linked to being at the receiving end of violence compounds the shame of having HIV: silencing many of us. We hesitate to go to the police, as many have faced ignorance around those issues in many institutions including prosecution services. The fact that HIV transmission is often criminalised also stops us from accessing support. What if we are accused of giving HIV to our partners? How will we prove our innocence? What will happen to our children if our status will be revealed? Will they be assumed to be HIV positive? Will they be taken away from us? Will they be bullied and shunned at school?
A recent study in an East London hospital revealed that 52% of women with HIV who responded to a questionnaire had experienced Intimate Partner Violence in their lifetime. A participatory study lead by women leaving with HIV in the UK, revealed the extent and the breath of the violence.
Violence is not just at the hands of our partners: institutions are violent. For example, here in the UK, we are sometimes blamed for wanting to be mothers by the healthcare workers who should be there to support us. Young women with HIV are denied contraception, even in the UK. In many
other parts of the world we get sterilised without our consent.
On the 14th of February the Sophia Forum, with Positively UK“s support, will hold an event at the House of Lords, synchronised with the One Billion Rising mobilisation, to launch the report on a feasibility study on the links between HIV and Gender Based Violence in the UK. It will convene: women living with HIV, policy makers, healthcare professionals and other service providers. We will ask for our realities to be acknowledged and for our basic human rights to be upheld. We are asking for action to end the violence against us.
Please take a minute to think what action you could take. We want to be heard: silence is violence, ignoring us is violence.
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