Conflict, Putting Women At Risk Of Contracting HIV

Published: Thu 25 Nov 2004 02:22 PM
Kamala Sarup: Conflict, putting women at risk of contracting HIV in Asia.
By Kamla Sarup
Speaking to this scribe at New York, The Peace Media advisor Dr. Sonal Singh said:
"While intuitively this makes sense from a research perspective this has not been conclusively proven so far. But what is definitely known is that violent conflict and war affect human health both directly - through the violence of bombs and bullets - and indirectly, by disrupting economic and social systems that address health needs.
"Recent research shows that increases in diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS and bubonic plague among others are associated with conflicts. There is a need for better understanding of the full impact of war on health and the environment".
HIV/AIDS and conflict create a double jeopardy for women. Women are the main victims of conflict. When the economy and the social infrastructure are destroyed, and male heads of households are missing, women carry a disproportionate burden as single-parent heads of families.
For a woman living in Asia and heading a household, the risks of being infected by HIV/AIDS are high. Her efforts to feed her famil! y may put her in a vulnerable situation where she is more likely to be coerced into sex in exchange for money and resources. This situation exposes her to HIV infection.
The situation in Asia deserved particular attention because the war had not allowed the region to set up the necessary conditions required to combat HIV/AIDS. The security conditions have directly affected the spread of HIV/AIDS, and that conflict and civil unrest can increase vulnerability to HIV/AIDS particularly among women and children. Political instability, and political crisis have an undeniable impact upon public health. Public health can be effective only in as much as the security of victims or armed conflict is guaranteed.
The impact of this sexual victimization of women on the spread of HIV/AIDS is compounded by the general absence of condoms in areas affected by conflict. The collapse of educational systems associated with conflict further exacerbates problems! and has the double effect of curtailing prevention efforts taught in the classroom and pulling children away from their studies, often into a chaotic and predatory environment.
Singh further added, "Young women and poor children without social protection are the first to be constrained into sexual transactions and prostitution by the lack of alternatives. In Asia, displaced people said the spread of HIV/AIDS was hastened by poverty, lack of occupation, and the lack of reproductive health services. In big cities girls and women exchanged sex for food.
In war-affected parts of Asia too, studies showed that girls and mothers became sex workers to earn a living because of their social and economic vulnerability, they exposed to coercive sex, especially in conflict situations. Widespread rape, and sexual exploitation of young people in conflicts are a serious violation and greatly increase the risk of HIV transmission.
Now we have questions how to assure as a condition of support that disarmament and reintegration programs and reconstruction programs take appropriate consideration of HIV/AIDS? How to ensuring that HIV/AIDS is fully taken into consideration as part of humanitarian accords, peace negotiations?
Investing in the health sector makes good sense for conflict prevention as well as for socio-economic development. Health can help peace also in operational terms. On other hand, media can play a great role in creating awareness among the general public. Education and awareness are the two powerful instruments, which can check the spread of the disease.
HIV/AIDS should be addressed during a conflict rather than waiting until it has ended. Humanitarian pauses and ceasefires should incorporate the opportunity for prevention education, distribution of condoms and voluntary testing. Negotiations for peace agreements should include the possibility for the full range of prevention, testing, counselling and, to the extent feasible, treatment programs for all combatants, whether regular or irre! gular forces, as well as among displaced civilians.
It should be on the agenda during peace negotiations, which would require including public health officials on negotiating teams or at least among those providing facilitation.
HIV/AIDS, moreover, can make it harder to bring conflict to an end. To ensure a sustainable and lasting peace, it is not enough simply to halt the fighting and implement disarmament and reintegration programs. Law and order and governance have to be re-established quickly, regional and local administrations set up, schools and clinics opened.
The HIV epidemic rages in situations where power is exercised without regard for others, whether that power be economic, social, sexual, psychological or the power of force. It spreads where there is a disregard for life, an intolerance of difference, a devaluing of women, a lack of a will to live, a breakdown of community values, violence and conflict.
It is important to consider how the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Asia contributes to further instability and conflict on the continent and how violent conflict in turn creates conditions favourable to the spread of the virus. There are several factors that contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS in emergency situations and which subsequently effect gender relations.
Violent conflict in some part of Asia is protracted and almost endemic. Successful HIV-AIDS programs appear to depend on strong community involvement. In emergency environments, the health priorities are to save lives and then to preserve health.
HIV infection among women is on the increase, and government still lacks programmes targeted at HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment of those women.
Over one million people in Asia were infected with the virus over the past two years alone. HIV rates are rising sharply in Asian countries like Nepal, Vietnam, India and China due to dramatic infection increases among injecting drug users.
Services that can protect women against HIV must be expanded. About 2.3 million out of the 8.2 million people living with HIV in Asia are women an increase of 56% since 2002. Nearly 50% of the 39.4 million people infected with HIV worldwide are women, according to the UN report.
We should not forget political instability, and political crisis have an undeniable impact upon women's health in Asia.
(Kamala Sarup is editor to )

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