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Women, sexual rights and HIV/AIDS

Mon, 3 Jan 2005 Source: GNA

A GNA Feature By Samuel Dowuona

Accra, Jan. 3, GNA - In Ghana, the Gender Studies and Human Rights Documentation Centre otherwise known as the Gender Centre recently organised a workshop for various women's groups in the country to deliberate on how to deepen local efforts at empowering women to negotiate safe sex.

This article is dedicated to examining some of the striking statistics and issues about women, their sexual rights and HIV/AIDS around the globe, in Africa and in Ghana.

Available statistics made available to the GNA indicate that globally 36 million people are living with HIV and AIDS and 55 per cent of the cases are females between the ages of 15 years and 49 years. (Source: UN AIDS Programme).

Additional statistics from the same source shows that 29.4 million out of the global total infected persons are in Sub-Saharan Africa. While the prevalence level among females is lower than among men in the developed world, it is higher among females in the developing nations.

In Ghana for instance, where the total national infection rate stands at 3.6 per cent of the total population, the prevalence ratio between females and males is currently 2:1, an improvement from 6:1 in 1987.

The Family Health Foundation, a Ghanaian-based nongovernmental organisation (NGO), dedicated to the study of HIV/AIDS and other health issues and how they affect women, has cautioned that although the 3.6 per cent infection rate in Ghana is low, as compared to other Sub-Saharan African countries, it does not mean Ghana is better off. The Foundation says in South Africa 24 per cent of females contract HIV by age 22 years and that Ghana is fast getting close to that stage due to either carelessness or ignorance about the existence of the disease on the part of most Ghanaians.

Global statistics further indicate that prevalence level among teenage girls is equally higher than teenage boys in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2002 alone, 42 million adults and children were estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS and out of the figure, 29.4 lived in Sub-Saharan Africa and only 570,000 and 980,000 lived in the whole of Western Europe and United States, respectively.

Within the same year, five million new infections were recorded globally, with 3.4 million recorded in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Estimated global adult and child deaths from HIV/AIDS in 2002 was 3.1 million with 2.3 million deaths occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa and only 20,000 deaths in the United States.

In each of those statistics, it is estimated that at least 55 per cent to 60 per cent of the cases were women between the ages of 25 years and 29 years.

It is estimated that 80 per cent to 85 per cent of HIV infections were through heterosexual means (man infecting woman or the other way round, through sexual intercourse); 12 per cent to 15 per cent through vertical means (mother infecting child through birth or breast feeding) and two per cent through blood transfusion, infected needles and razors.

Both local and global statistics show that women bear the brunt of the scourge of HIV/AIDS, as they (women) are more susceptible by nature to contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Church World Report on HIV/AIDS indicates that since it was first reported in 1986, the pandemic has killed more people (mostly women) than World Wars one and two and the Gulf War combined.

Some of the other reasons identified as the causes of the high prevalence of HIV infections in women include the cultural practice, which gave men the exclusive right to decide when, how and why to have sex with women in or out of marriage.

Indeed these cultural practices are reinforced by the dependence of women on men for their needs, both financial and material.

Women in this kind of situation, mostly in the developing countries, are subjected to sexual violence in the event they decide to postpone sexual intercourse for a moment for reasons of health, safety or tiredness.

In Ghana, it is estimated that for two out of every 10 women, their first experience of sexual intercourse was by force. Two out of every five women are harassed or coerced when they refuse their partners sex and three out of every 10 women are forced by their male partners to have sex sometimes.

In several communities also, men are allowed to have more than one partner, in spite of the fact that they (men) could pick up a dangerous Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) from one partner and transmit it to the other.

Practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual cleansing, Trokosi and others in Ghana, which still linger on with impunity, despite the several efforts to abolish them, also expose women to the danger of contracting STIs like HIV/AIDS.

Simply put, women's exposure to the danger of contracting HIV/AIDS is reinforced by their lack of the right to negotiate safe sex.

It was, therefore, right when Ghanaian Women Leaders during the celebration of the International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women this year, strongly advocated that women must have the right to negotiate safe sex if the HIV/AIDS prevalence level among women were to be cut down.

Mrs Angela Dwamena-Aboagye, Executive Director of the Ark Foundation, an NGO, did not mince words on her advocacy for women to have the right to negotiate safe sex when she said "in the face of the HIV/AIDS menace, women must be given the power to decide, when, how and why to have sex".

She noted that it was not right for men to continue to make sexual decisions for women in what ever circumstance, whether marital or otherwise since several reports had shown that women were more susceptible to STIs and HIV/AIDS especially.

Mrs Dorcas Cokah-Appiah, Executive Director of the Gender Centre, also pointed out that the laws of the State as they stood now, did not empower women, who suspected their husbands of having multiple partners and knew that it could put them in danger, to take the necessary steps to protect themselves.

She asked: "How much longer are we as a people going to subsume the rights of more than half of the population under the rights of others? Women in Ghana demand that the Government of Ghana should offer us the protection that is due us as full citizens of this country."

Now the call by the Women Leaders for women to be given the right to negotiate safe sex has become very vital, considering the undeniable facts, backed by the chilling global, Sub-Saharan and national statistics on the prevalence and effect of the menace on women in particular.

Columnist: GNA