A Soroptimist reports on the AIDS 2018 Conference

Gender inequality gives a higher risk of HIV infection for women

A blog by Mary Muia, Kenyan Soroptimist of Karen Blixen club of Nairobi, health professional and SIFAF Task Force Chair (2018-2020)

Last week, I was privileged to join thousands of delegates from all over the world to attend the 22nd International AIDS Conference hosted in Amsterdam, the Netherlands July 23-27 2018. My day-to-day work revolves around working with vulnerable groups to prevent and reduce the AIDS impact in my country, Kenya. Clear links exist between gender inequality and the risk of HIV infection.

Adolescent girls and young women are at a high HIV risk due to their vulnerability to gender-based violence. Globally 1 in 3 women will experience intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence. Adolescent girls and young women account for a disproportionate number of new infections: Globally, young women are twice as likely to acquire HIV as their male counterparts. In sub-Saharan Africa, 3 in 4 new HIV infections among 15 to 19-year-olds are among girls. In Eastern and Southern Africa, despite making up only 10% of the population, girls and young women aged 15-24 account for around one in four new infections.

Under the theme Breaking Barriers, Building BridgesI was honored to share programmatic lessons learned in the just concluded AIDS 2018 conference on the topic “Confronting gender-based violence to reduce HIV risk among adolescent girls and young women in Kenya”. Adolescent girls and young women in Nairobi’s informal settlements are uniquely vulnerable to HIV. Their vulnerability cuts across behavioral, social and biological factors. Adolescent girls and young women often engage in age-disparate and/or transactional relationships as a result of poverty and unemployment, putting them at increased HIV risk.   Compounded with gender and power imbalance, adolescent girls and young women require special skills to prevent and deal with violence in their settings.

Group therapy for victims of gender-based violence proved to work for girls and women living in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Under the guidance of a trained trauma counselor, the adolescent girls and young women gained trust and confidence and became able to recognize their emotional self-awareness and develop cognitive autonomy, the ability to take responsibility for their own change to confront gender-based violence.

I also joined other delegates in a session hosted by “Girls not Brides” to move forward the conversation about the importance of communities protecting young girls from forced child marriages. The discussions concluded that some of the factors which put girls at higher risk of HIV infection are the same as those that put girls at risk of child marriage. These include gender inequalities, poverty and low education attainment which limit girls’ ability to decide about their health, who to have sex with and when to marry.

This is, therefore, a wakeup call to all Soroptimists to increase efforts towards the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence and child marriages and so reduce new HIV infection.

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