Violence against women is a major human rights problem that has special significance for HIV and AIDS. Violence in sexual encounters greatly increases the possibility of HIV transmission, both at the time of the assault and in subsequent life. This is the situation with numerous women and several children. Fear of subsequent violence also inhibits women from seeking HIV treatment and thereby leads to a worsening of the AIDS situation. Because of its wide-ranging extent and implications, gender-based violence is one of the reasons why women are more vulnerable to HIV infection than men. Violence against women is the most pervasive of all human rights violations. Up to half of all adult women are reported to have experienced violence at the hands of their intimate partners. Systematic sexual violence against women has characterized almost all recent armed conflicts and is used as a tool of terror and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Moreover, apart from the direct role of coerced sex inside and outside marriage and in conflict situations, fear of possible violence reinforces the domination and control that underpins women’s subordination (UNDP, 2005: 42).The statistics make bleak reading:
1. Some 30 percent of women are forced into their first sexual experience.
2. One in three women worldwide will experience violence in her lifetime.
3. One in five women worldwide will survive rape or attempted rape.
4. A high proportion of young people (up to 60 percent in some areas) believe that forcing sex with someone known to you is not sexual violence.
5. Women who have experienced violence may be up to three times more likely to acquire HIV than those who have not.
6. Twenty percent of girls and ten percent of boys experience sexual abuse during childhood.
7. Almost half of all sexual assaults in the world are against girls aged 15 or younger.
8. Violence against children takes place in the home, school, and community – perpetrators are frequently individuals that children know and trust.
9. Sexual abuse in childhood may have long-term HIV infection consequences as lower self-esteem leads many victims of abuse to take greater sexual risks.
(Global AIDS Alliance, 2006: 6,7).
It also happens that justice systems may not be victim-friendly, resulting in women and girls being blamed for rather than protected from gender-based violence. Regrettably, the attitude of the legal and law enforcement agencies frequently reflects the way of thinking of a male-dominated society. “The courts often do not take (the) case seriously and, in the case of an older girl with a complaint of sexual abuse, the case may hinge on whether or not the judge believes she ‘asked for it’” (Human Rights Watch, 2003: 60). The poor protection offered by the courts increases the reluctance of families to seek justice for crimes of sexual abuse against women and children. The light sentences that courts frequently hand down also proclaim the very degrading message that these are not regarded as serious offences and that officially the state takes them quite lightly.
The challenge to the Church
The female face of HIV and AIDS refers to two issues, the more extensive and severe impact the epidemic has on women and girls than on men and boys, and the role of women and girls at the forefront of household and community responses. Both constitute a significant challenge to the Church.
In the situation of HIV and AIDS the Church has played a significant service role, being responsible for about one-third of global AIDS care and for a wide range of dynamic responses to orphan needs. It has also played a significant role in HIV prevention through its unfaltering commitment to abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage. What is needed now is that it should maintain these responses, but also go beyond them.
The female face of the epidemic is a real challenge to it to do so. In the context of AIDS, the Church as a multi-sectoral, ministering and healing community must manifest a clearer feminine profile and more distinctly feminine features (Orobator, 2007: 124). Because our Mother the Church herself has AIDS, because our sisters are carrying the brunt of the epidemic and at the same time providing the most significant response, HIV and AIDS challenge the entire Church to move more boldly towards affirming the participation and contribution of women. The feminisation of AIDS calls for the feminisation of ecclesial identity, with an equal role for women in the exercise of ministry, authority and decision-making. Having voiced his concern about “the mindset persistent in some cultures, where women are firmly subordinated to the arbitrary decisions of men”, Pope Benedict called for this form of discrimination to be overcome. Clearly this has to occur as much in the Church as in secular cultures.
The moment of AIDS is undoubtedly a moment of monumental human suffering and anguish. But it is more. It is a moment of special grace, a unique kairos moment when God calls us to move from our set ways and be converted personally and structurally. The epidemic impels us to a new kenosis, a new emptying away of gender stereotypes and discriminations so that, inspired by what HIV and AIDS are doing to women and what women in their turn are doing to the epidemic, we work collectively towards a Church that
• Actively values the contributions of women in every situation, especially those of HIV and AIDS.
• Gives women more freedom in representing to the rest of society the reality of the Church as Mother.
• Strives to dismantle the structures of gender-based discrimination in both Church and society.
• Works to promote the active empowerment of women in Church and society, as the full equals of men.
In this way the feminisation of AIDS may help bring the Church closer to the vision of Saint Paul, neither male nor female, but all one in Christ (Gal., 3:28).
Trócaire’s Lenten Campaign stresses the importance of making the essential equality between women and men a lived reality. The vicious assault of HIV and AIDS on women is a further compelling reason for concern and action. It is not enough that we take note of the persistent inequalities that Pope Benedict laments. We should also do something about them. Hence, each one should constantly ask:
• What have I done in order to overcome the persistent inequalities between women and men?
• What am I doing about this right now?
• What more can I do in the future?
Anything one can do in this sphere will hasten the day when the full equality between women and men will be recognised not just in principle but also in practice. It will also hasten the day when the stranglehold of HIV and AIDS will be loosened so that men, women and their children can experience a life of dignity and fulfilment.