Source: Swazi Observer
This week the Swaziland media contained several articles about the damage caused by relatives of gender-based violence victims who do not report the crimes for fear of 'airing dirty family laundry' in public (tibi tendlu or 'house rubbish.')
Gender-based violence has many causes, from social inequality to partners unhinged by drugs or alcohol and many consequences, including injuries and deaths and the social and economic damage caused by the loss of Swazi women. Not to be forgotten is the wider health impact to the nation caused by violence against women. Specifically, the need to overcome gender-based violence is essential if Swaziland is to conquer AIDS.
The link between violence against women and the spread of AIDS has been established for awhile. Swaziland seeks zero new infections by 2020. However, this goal is difficult to achieve unless efforts to end gender-based violence are made part of the HIV reduction efforts.
According to Professor Rachel Jewkes of South Africa's Medical Research Council, there is a link between forms of sexual abuse and the increase in HIV transmissions. These forms of abuse include rape and sexual abuse of children.
Research by Jewkes, who is a noted expert on gender-based violence, found that sexual violence is a common cause for women and children coming to clinics and routinely makes up a portion of any hospital or clinic's daily admissions or 'case load.'
"Dealing with this type of violence is a normal feature of clinical case loads," said Jewkes.
However, only a minority of survivors of gender-based violence seek medical help. These survivors may feel their wounds are not severe, or they are too embarrassed to seek assistance. They may also fear their attackers will get angry that the survivors are 'telling others' about 'tibi tendlu.' For this reason, health officials feel that actual number of gender-abuse cases is greatly under-represented.
In Swaziland, one out of three girls under the age of 15 is a survivor of sexual abuse. In the Eastern Cape of South Africa, the situation is a bit worse: nearly 40% of teenagers have been sexually abused as children.
Jewkes reported this week a clear link between sexual violence, particularly between partners and an increased incidence of HIV.
She presented the results of one of her studies found that around 12% percent of women infected by HIV were infected because of at least one incident of sexual violence with an 'intimate partner violence.'
Fourteen percent of HIV cases among women were rooted in what Jewkes called a woman's "low power in the relationship," which meant that the woman was powerless to insist that her partner wears a condom. In some cases, the woman was so powerless or abused that she dare not even mention the subject.
Because "a very high percentage of HIV can be attributed to gender-based violence," Jewkes said it was unfortunately that UNAIDS, which sets guidelines for efforts to combat AIDS, has not made gender-based violence more of a priority. Instead, UNAIDS considers sexual violence a 'situational factor' in the spread of HIV.
Researchers reported at the conference found that children who are sexually abused are also more likely to pursue sexual behaviour in later years that puts them at risk of contracting HIV.
"We need to talk about the dangers they are willing to undertake as part of love seeking or the willingness to hold onto someone who is bad for them, as part of this love seeking behavior," Jewkes said.
Children are not the only ones who are so scarred by sexual violence that they put themselves at risk through risky sexual behaviour. Abused partners and survivors of rape, if not given counselling to boost their self-esteem, may follow the same destructive behaviour. In all cases, the risk of HIV is not just personal, it is a danger the society faces collectively. An HIV-positive person affects the welfare of family (the risk of losing a loved one) and the economy (the risk of losing a valued worker, teacher, civil servant, police officer and so on).
Of course, there would be no victims of sexual abuse if there were no perpetrators of sexual abuse. Concentrating only on the survivors while paying no heed to those who commit sexual violence treats the symptoms but not the cause.
For this reason, community meetings seeking to dialogue with men as well as women can bring up issues and help change attitudes that lead to a male sense of entitlement in sexual matters and partnerships, which can lead to sexual abuse.
For boys, their attitudes can be moulded through education, so the sense of a Swazi man's privileged position as protector of his family and loved ones is reaffirmed.
All these initiatives will reduce both gender-based violence and HIV infections.