The link between HIV and gender violence discussed at a workshop in Jamaica

With a recent survey showing that at least 12 per cent of women between 15-49 years were the victims of forced sexual abuse at one point during their lifetime, the National Family Planning Board (NFPB) hosted a workshop to look at gender-based violence (GBV) and its implications for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

In addition to addressing the underlying issues and disseminating current data on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and GBV, the workshop also brought persons from the National HIV/STI programme at the Ministry of Health and the Bureau of Women’s Affairs together to discuss the way forward as they tackle the ‘two epidemics’.

Apart from showing the incidence of forced sexual abuse among women of reproductive age, the 2008 Reproductive Health Survey also showed that at least one in three women experienced at least one type of abuse, and one in five reported having experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

During her dissemination of the survey data, executive director of the NFPB Dr Olivia McDonald described some of the findings as being “very frightening”, and sought to show the direct and indirect link to HIV/AIDS and GBV.

“Sexual violence poses a direct biological risk for HIV because where there is forced intercourse, there is usually some vaginal trauma or laceration, and wherever there is trauma, this will facilitate transmission of any sexually transmitted infection, including HIV,” she said.

She also pointed to the fact that women were unable to negotiate condom use during forced sexual intercourse, and that the fear of violence sometimes prevented women from getting tested or disclosing their status.

In addition to this, the doctor also asserted that the “experience of violence may be linked to increased risk taking”.

“Risk-taking behaviours would include multi-partners (and) non-primary partners. These are women who may have a main partner, but they also have what the army would call a second in command,” she explained.

In her address to those in attendance at the workshop, Co-ordinator for HIV Treatment and Care at the Ministry of Health Dr Debbie Carrington pointed to the importance of addressing GBV, as her group forges ahead to achieve the millennium development goal “to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic by 2015”.

“As a country and a region, we still have a far way to go to ensure protection of our most vulnerable populations,” she said.

But Executive Director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs Faith Webster assured that her organisation in fulfilling its mandate, and has been undertaking a number of projects and workshops to enlighten women about their rights and to empower them. She said that her group will be “increasing efforts to eliminate violence against women”, even as it remains mindful of the fact that men are also being abused and need to be helped as well.

As it relates to their role in the elimination of HIV/AIDS, Director of Policy and Research at the Bureau Jennifer Williams said the organisation currently partners with the United Nations Population Fund to distribute condoms to encourage safe sex. She said they have also been trying to change the mindset of teenage boys about the treatment of women through a series of workshops that they host throughout the year.

“We have been conducting public education on HIV and AIDS and we have also been conducting public education on gender-based violence,” she added.

But even with increasing interventions and campaigns to stem the transmission of HIV, Director of Policy Formulation, Monitoring and Evaluation at the NFPB Kevin Bell said people seemed “to hear it, but they tune out”.

His statement comes amidst his analysis of the 2008 survey, which showed that a significant percentage of the population still harboured myths about the disease and were not going for testing. This was primarily the case among those living in the North East region of the country.

“We need to reduce the predisposing circumstances — those circumstances that put people at risk to gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS,” he said.

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