World AIDS Day is held on the 1st December each year and provides a vital opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support to people who live with HIV and remember those who have died. Inaugurated in 1988, World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day.
The NFWI was one of the first organisations in the UK to talk publicly about HIV and AIDS following its 1986 resolution ‘to inform the general public of the true facts concerning the disease AIDS’ and used its unrivalled network of local organisations to educate the public and get people talking about the issue. One of its first tasks was to debunk the myth that AIDS wasn't a women’s issue. Just because women were officially categorised as a low risk group, the NFWI argued, that didn’t mean that the challenges AIDS presented to women weren’t real, pressing, or unique.
To tackle this misinformation and produce information relevant to women, the NFWI teamed up with the Terrence Higgins Trust to help publish and produce the educational pamphlet ‘Women and AIDS,’ aimed at sparking a dialogue amongst women about the disease and how to protect themselves and their families. Marylyn Haines Evans, the chair of the WI’s public affairs committee was in fact part of that campaign. Haines Evans distributed Terrence Higgins Trust’s ‘Women and AIDS’ pamphlets “around village halls educating much older women about condoms and sexual health.” In contrast to what some may think older women are interested in, Haines Evans recollected that “they wanted to learn.”
In the years immediately following the resolution, WI members participated in the government’s awareness raising campaign and challenged media characterisations of AIDS as a ‘plague’ because ‘this has led to unnecessary prejudice and extreme isolation for many sufferers.’ The NFWI also submitted evidence to the Social Services Committee inquiry on AIDS. In 1987 the BBC challenged the WI to ‘Face up to AIDS’ by organising public meetings to discuss the disease. The BBC subsequently reported that the WI response was amongst the best received, with Federations taking part up and down the country. This resolution is proof that, as the Terrence Higgins Trust said in 1986, ‘the WI does not flinch from the more difficult issues that face society.’
Despite significant advancements in HIV treatment and care, World AIDS Day remains as important as ever. There are over 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK. In many regions of the world women are at a higher risk of HIV infection than men; there are an estimated 380,000 new HIV infections among young women aged 15 – 24 every year with 80% of all young women living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Women are a vulnerable group in the fight against HIV; they are particularly at risk due to societal norms such as gender-based violence, lack of access to healthcare services and lack of access to education. A number of studies have shown that intimate partner violence (IPV) increases the risk of HIV infection, as well as unwanted pregnancy. For example, a study from South Africa found that young women who experienced IPV were 50% more likely to acquire HIV than those who did not experience violence. Societal norms regarding gender-based violence also increase a woman’s risk of HIV. A study from Tanzania found that women are expected to stay loyal to their partner even if they are being abused; however men are encouraged to engage in unprotected extramarital sex, thus passing on the infection.
Women can face significant barriers in accessing health care services and education, for example child marriage can mean girls are taken out of school early, resulting in a lack of education about HIV. In addition, youth friendly HIV services are often inadequate due to age restrictions and lack of training on the laws around the age of consent and abortion legislation. For some women, working in the sex industry is their only choice to earn money, which means they are particularly affected by the age restrictions on health care services if they are under eighteen.
Charities such as Wise Up are trying to improve services for sex workers and their clients in Ethiopia by expanding HIV prevention services to venues associated with transactional sex to address underlying factors such as limited access to condoms and education. In addition, the charity Sophia Forum supports the health and welfare rights of women with HIV living in the UK by promoting prevention and treatment for women and increasing understanding of women’s sexual health.
The WI’s pioneering work helped fuel debates specifically about women and HIV and challenge the stereotypes people so often had about AIDS.
The NFWI asks that WI members take a moment today to commemorate World AIDS Day by speaking with their friends, family, and colleagues about the virus and asking yourself what you could do to help educate others and support those living with HIV and AIDS.