Stigma, Gender Violence Placing Women in Caribbean at Increased Risk of HIV

Inter Press Service last week examined how an increasing number of women living with HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean face stigma, discrimination and gender-based violence that is linked to the spread of the disease. UNAIDS reports that women overall now account for half of the population living with HIV in the Caribbean, compared with 30% in 1999. Women ages 15 to 24 account for 62% of the entire HIV-positive population in the Caribbean.

The Dominican Republic and Haiti, which make up the island of Hispaniola, have some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the region, according to UNAIDS. Women account for 51% of the 60,000 HIV-positive people in the Dominican Republic, while they account for 60% of the 120,000 HIV-positive people in Haiti. Myrna Flores Chian — head of the gender rights program of Profamilia, a nongovernmental organization involved in reproductive rights efforts in the Dominican Republic — said, “There are physiological factors that put women and girls at greater risk of infection in unprotected sexual relations.” She added that “the feminization of AIDS is due above all to social discrimination, gender inequality and lack of empowerment for women.” Flores Chian said that gender violence and women’s inability to negotiate condom use with partners or other conditions is directly linked to the spread of HIV.

A recent study by Development Connections, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the World Health Organization found that 25% of women surveyed in the Dominican Republic in 2007 said they became sexually active before age 15 and 75% before age 19. Wendy Alba, a researcher involved in the study, said that additional studies in the Dominican Republic found that women who had experienced gender violence were nearly four times more likely to have a sexually transmitted infection than women who had not been abused.

Inter Press Service reports that HIV-positive women often risk abuse or abandonment if they reveal their status and that they often face challenges accessing needed services. Sara Iglesias, head of the HIV and violence against women project at the Colectiva Mujer y Salud, said Haitian women in the Dominican Republic often engage in “high-risk sexual behavior linked to their status as illegals, their poverty, and the discrimination and linguistic and cultural barriers they face.” The project aims to train commercial sex workers, police officials, prosecutors and health ministry workers about HIV and violence against women, according to Iglesias.

Inter Press Service reports that more than 30 nongovernmental organizations, government groups and U.N. agencies have created a committee to implement a five-year strategic plan to reduce gender violence and curb the spread of HIV in the Dominican Republic. Alba said the plan will launch at the end of the year and “will take into account the needs of Dominican and Haitian women in the areas affected the most by HIV and violence against women in the country” .


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