HIV and Gender-based Violence: What are the Costs of Inaction?

With growing recognition of the links between gender-based violence and HIV, why is there still so little being done? And why do the women leading change, making a difference from the bottom up, still lack the funding and a meaningful seat at the table to bring their solutions forward?

Globally, women face vulnerability to HIV and to gender-based violence. These two epidemics are linked – evidence demonstrates that women who have experienced violence are more likely to have HIV, and that women living with HIV are more likely to have experienced violence.

In my work with ATHENA I partnered with the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS(GCWA) – with support from the UNAIDS – to profile the work being done by women themselves to address HIV and GBV. I carried out this research, speaking to women from all over the world who are leading innovative responses in their communities to reduce violence, reduce HIV transmission and realise the rights of women living with HIV and in all our diversity.

I spoke with women who are providing services and support to women who use drugs in Ukraine, to prevent violence and provide safe accommodation for them and their children when they have experienced it. Women in Namibia leading a legal campaign to secure redress for women living with HIV forced and coerced into sterilisation as a result of discriminatory attitudes about HIV among healthcare staff.

Women from the Coalition of African Lesbians who developed the ‘I am/More than’ campaign to call for equality for all women regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Women in Bolivia using body map images to tell the story of the impact of violence in their lives as women living with HIV, women who do sex work and trans women.

All these and more are gathered in Community Innovation: Achieving an end to gender-based violence through the HIV response. Yet, despite the extraordinary work led by women in addressing HIV and GBV and the great capacity demonstrated by communities to innovate, lead and effect change – each of these projects suffers from limited, insecure and short-term funding, in contexts of discrimination, legal or political instability and other challenges. Too often, the great promise of campaigns and programmes is lost or undermined when the funding ends and the funders move on, looking for the next innovation. Or a new issue comes along and takes the headlines, and with it donor attention and dollars.

Or, the issue never gets the attention. Here in the UK, the links between HIV and GBV aren’t recognised and there is little action to address it, though there is evidence that it is a significant issue. One study, at the Homerton University Hospital, found that of 191 women living with HIV surveyed, 52% had experienced violence perpetrated by a partner. I am a trustee for the Sophia Forum, a charity working to promote the rights of women living with HIV in the UK. Two years ago, Sophia Forum conducted a study into support to address HIV and GBV in the UK. This found a need to better understand the extent and forms of GBV experienced by women living with HIV, and more support and targeted action to address it.

Sophia Forum is ready to take action on this, but lacks the funding to do so. Like so many women’s and gender equality organisations, in the UK and all over the world, we struggle to access funding and so the work we can do is limited.
If we are to achieve real change, transformation in gender norms and in attitudes about and perpetration of gender-based violence, the world’s attention span needs to increase and focus on these issues.

Headlines and dollars need to be in it for the long haul, with and alongside women leaders and communities. The case studies in this report show that change is possible, but we all know it isn’t quick, and it isn’t free. Women’s rights organisations are running on fumes, and the risk of exhaustion is huge. But what is the cost of inaction?

Jacqui Stevenson, Sophia Forum trustee
Follow Jacqui on Twitter @NetworkAthena

First published in the Huffington Post 10.02.15