On 18 March 2008, Amnesty International published a report titled “South Africa: ‘I am at the lowest end of all’". This study concludes that rural women who experience sexual violence are extremely vulnerable to HIV infection. According to the report 5 ½ million people are infected with HIV in South Africa—55% of those affected are female. Further, rates of infection in women continue to rise even as national levels have leveled off. The report investigates the different factors that contribute to women’s increased vulnerability to HIV. Primary among these are the harmful effects of sexual assault and domestic violence against women.
Violence against women is widespread in South Africa. The report found that stereotypes about the subordinate role of women add to the cycle of rape and violence. Violent sexual assault results in physical wounds that increase women’s vulnerability to HIV. Often, men who commit such acts are engaged in other risk-taking behavior, such as sex with multiple partners. Interviews with women revealed that many who had experienced sexual assault fear the consequences of reporting rape, both because of retaliation and because of the inefficient and often humiliating legal processes involved with such a report. As a result, perpetrators of rape go unpunished.
The report finds that domestic violence is also a crucial factor in increasing women’s vulnerability to HIV infection, and it emphasizes the role that gender-discrimination plays in the continuance of domestic violence. Many women face abuse if they refuse to have sex with their husband, or if they demand the use of condoms. The study found that women are reluctant to leave abusive relationships because they are financially dependent upon their spouse. Women also fear retaliation and the stigma associated with divorce or separation.
The report quotes the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. She states, “In spite of ample empirical evidence to this effect, states have yet to fully acknowledge and act upon the interconnection between the mutually reinforcing pandemics of VAW and HIV-AIDS”. Amnesty International strongly recommends that the South African State increase efforts to combat gender discrimination and domestic violence as part of a comprehensive plan to fight and prevent HIV/AIDS.
To read the full report, click here.
Compiled from: “South Africa: ‘I am at the lowest end of all’. Rural Women Living with HIV Face Human Rights Abuses in South Africa”, Amnesty International, 18 March 2008.