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Widows and AIDS: Redefinitions and Challenges

B Sleap †(2001)
10 pages (33.5KB)

What is the impact of HIV/AIDS on women in developing countries and particularly on widows? Statistical material is almost nonexistent about how women are affected by this devastating disease. Using local case studies in Africa, the Panos AIDS Programme assesses the epidemiology of AIDS in women and widows and asks questions about its psychological and socio-economic effects.

Women who are widowed as a result of AIDS in the developing world face a number of obstacles. For example, they may be blamed for their husbandís death or ostracised by the community as a result of the stigma attached to AIDS. With no man to depend on they may have to resort to activities that are considered immoral by the society in which they live. Discrimination against widows and HIV/AIDS are interrelated in two ways, HIV/AIDS significantly adds to the burden of the already inferior status of widows and their economic, social and political inferiority makes widows (and women in general) more vulnerable to HIV infection.

HIV/AIDS sets up a vicious circle of discrimination and poverty, which has the following key features:

  • Women are twice as likely to contract HIV through intercourse than men; young women are particularly vulnerable. Furthermore, widows often have less access to treatment for economic reasons.
  • For a widow affected by HIV/AIDS, the additional psychological burden is particularly great.
  • In a female-headed household, the burden of caring for sick relatives can have severe economic consequences.
  • Traditional practices such as widow inheritance are being held up to scrutiny. However, it has been men who have been taking the decisions with little or no involvement of the women.
  • One of the positive outcomes of the AIDS epidemic is that public health experts now recognise the efficacy of policies that respect individual rights, which before were sacrificed for the sake of community health.

Recent activism on the right to antiretroviral treatment has focused the debate on access to healthcare and poor health infrastructures in general. NGOs, policy makers and international agencies are beginning to address the role that men play in driving the epidemic. Since changing sexual behaviour is at the heart of reducing the spread of HIV and since in the majority of countries men have control over this behaviour, this approach could be seen as a pragmatic strategy. However:

  • Interventions that focus on men are not really confronting the causes of male social, political and economic power and the consequent vulnerability of women and widows, which is critical in the spread of HIV.
  • Pragmatic short-term programmes must be matched by long term social change if both the spread of HIV is to be reduced and the rights of women and widows respected.
  • There is a need to ensure that interventions that target widows do not merely add to their existing roles as carers, mothers and providers but see them as women in their own right.
  • In failing to address the causes behind the vulnerability of widows, the international community is ignoring the changes that HIV/AIDS is dictating and effectively allowing discrimination to continue.

Source: Sleap, B., 2001, Widows and AIDS: Redefinitions and Challenges, Paper presented at Widows Without Rights, London.

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