On The Issues Magazine

Can Black Women Lead on Rethinking Marriage?

One highlight of Election Day 2012: voters in Maryland, Washington and Maine deciding, with their ballots, whether people in same-sex relationships will be allowed to marry.

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How War Puts Women Under Siege

 Rosemary Gonzalez was murdered in 2009, the victim of a war that ended in 1996. One day, 17-year-old Rosemary said good-bye to her mother Betty, walked out of their small house on the outskirts of Guatemala City and was never seen alive again.

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The Republican War Against Women

Republican women have become a not-so-subtle weapon for breaking apart the Democratic coalition, grounded in the women's vote, that gave Democrats control of the House and Senate in 2006 and 2008 and made Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House. This year for the first time since 1982, Democrats did not have a voting advantage with women. Men supported Republicans by a margin of 12 percent and women by one percent.

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Women Fight Exclusion In Catholic Priesthood

If ever there were doubt about the relationship between the Catholic Church's spectacular failure to address the clerical child sex abuse crisis and the church's glaring system of gender apartheid, the Vatican put it to rest in July. Engendering a firestorm of criticism, their new canonical guidelines for handling and punishing the most "grave crimes" in church law revealed just how enraged the hierarchy is at women who dare to challenge them. Along with the crimes of sexually molesting children and developmentally disabled adults, and of using and distributing pornography, the Vatican listed: "the attempted sacred ordination of a woman."

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What is a Woman Worth? The Feminization of AIDS

What is a woman worth?

HIV infections among women and girls have risen in every part of the world in recent years. The numbers point to a fundamental and startling reality -- the HIV/AIDS pandemic is inextricably linked to the brutal effects of sexism and gender inequality, most pronounced in Africa.

Consider these statistics: The latest reports from the UNAIDS (Dec. 2007) show 33.2 million people are living with HIV throughout the world. Sub-Saharan Africa has more than two-thirds (22.6 million) of the total number of HIV infections. Sixty-two per cent (14 million) of those infected are women and adolescent girls. Seventy-five per cent of all HIV-positive women in the world are African.

Why are we allowing women and girls to die from this preventable and treatable disease? What is a woman worth in our world today?

Gender Discrimination At the Core

"The toll on women and girls presents Africa and the world with a practical and moral challenge, which places gender at the center of the human condition. The practice of ignoring gender analysis has turned out to be lethal…what has happened to women is …a gross and palpable violation of human rights," said Stephen Lewis, former UN Secretary-General's Envoy to Africa, at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain in 2002.

Many forms of violence against African women contribute to, and worsen, the devastation of women and girls from the HIV/AIDS virus. Women and girls are often ill informed about sexual and reproductive matters and are more likely than men and boys to be uneducated and illiterate. Physiologically, women are two to four times more likely than men to become infected with HIV, but they lack social power to insist on safer sex or to reject sexual advances.

Gender Violence and Poverty are Disease Risks

Gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices are some of the major risks for contracting the HIV virus. These include sexual violence, marital rape, domestic violence, early child marriage of young girls to older men, forced marriage, wife inheritance, widow cleansing, polygamy, and female genital mutilation.

Poverty forces many women into subsistence sex work or transactional relationships that preclude negotiating condom use. For economic reasons, women are often unable to leave a relationship, even if they know that their partner has been infected or exposed to HIV. In many African countries, women are designated as minors, lack their own earning power, are unable to obtain credit and cannot own or inherit property.

The oppressive economic dependency of women on men is a core aspect of gender relations in this region. This critical issue must be taken on with real solutions and basic societal changes by governments, AIDS programs, non-profit groups, and, most importantly, the women themselves.

Thoraya Obaid, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said in 2006: "Women and girls are vulnerable to AIDS not because of their individual behavior, but because of the discrimination and violence they face, the unequal power relations. Even being married is a risk factor for women … Female HIV infections are on the rise in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, as well as in Africa. And AIDS is the leading cause of death for 25-34-year-old African-American women in the United States … only by addressing the needs and human rights of women and ensuring their full participation will we change the course of this disease."

Cures To Reverse the Spread of HIV/AIDS

So what is to be done?

To reverse the spread of AIDS, women must have greater control of their decisions, bodies and lives-as well as their governments and public policies.

In 2004, UNAIDS launched the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, a worldwide alliance of civil society groups, governments, UN organizations and networks of women living with HIV/AIDS. The coalition's platform calls for education, literacy, and economic rights for women; equal access to antiretroviral treatment; access to sexual and reproductive health services; changes in harmful gender stereotypes; and zero tolerance for gender-based violence.

Three-quarters of all new HIV infections are sexually transmitted between men and women. The behaviors of men are critical to prevention efforts in Africa. They hold overwhelming power in decisions about sexual matters, including whether to have sex or to use condoms. In many societies, women are expected to know little about such matters and those who raise the issue of condom use risk accusations of being unfaithful or promiscuous.

HIV care and contraceptive management programs -- two important elements of women's health -- must begin to work together according to UNFPA. For too long they have separated themselves because of the politicizations and funding aspects of both of these issues. This is clearly shortsighted, if women's lives are to be saved.

Equal access to antiretroviral treatment will help to safeguard a woman's well being and prevent HIV transmission to her children. Ethics and human rights demand that women who are HIV positive are able to make informed contraceptive decisions, including the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Voluntary contraception is integral to stemming the HIV pandemic.

Hard Choices Make Hard Policy

Some of the most effective steps to stemming the feminization of HIV/AIDS are not about healthcare per se but about broad social changes. Dr. Chinua Akuke of the Board of Directors of the Constituency for Africa in Washington, D.C. and an adjunct professor of public health at George Washington University, said: "The key question is whether African leaders and elite are ready to make hard choices that would slow down the rate of infections among women…The key is to focus on practical solutions to a problem that can only get worse if nothing is done."

She describes ten critical steps for African leaders.

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