BRIDGE and ICW Release a New Report on Women and Girls Living with HIV/AIDS
Monday, June 25, 2007 12:27 PM

A recent joint publication by BRIDGE and the International Community of Women living with HIV and AIDS (ICW) highilights that "women and girls are especially vulnerable to HIV infection due to a host of biological, social, cultural and economic reasons, including women's entrenched social and economic inequality within sexual relationships and marriage. Globally there were 17.7 million women living with HIV in 2006 - an increase of over one million compared with 2004. In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 60 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in 2006 were women." [1]

There is a two-way relationship between entrenched gender inequality and HIV/AIDS, however. Whilst it is well known that women are more vulnerable to HIV infection because of intersectional inequality within society, women living with HIV/AIDS are further marginalised and suffer from inequality and rights violations because they are HIV positive.

So how does HIV/AIDS impact on women's rights and what do some women's rights organisation focus on for more effective and gender-sensitive responses to HIV/AIDS? Thaufiek Zulbahary (TZ), who works for Solidaritas Perempuan (SP), a women's rights organisation in Indonesia, shared some valuable and unique insight into how HIV/AIDS impacts the rights of migrant women workers in Indonesia.

AWID: Can you please tell us a little about Solidaritas Perempuan and the work that you do?

TZ: Solidaritas Perempuan/Women's Solidarity for Human Rights is based in Jakarta and is a member of CARAM Asia (Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility in Asia) and the Asia Pacific Forum for Women Law and Development (APWLD). SP's programs related to migration, trafficking and HIV/AIDS are:

1. Policy Advocacy: This includes monitoring and analysing policies regarding migration and trafficking, migration and health (HIV/AIDS). We also conduct advocacy research, such as research on the vulnerability of migrants to IV/AIDS; the state of health of Indonesian migrant workers (access to health), and research on the mandatory testing of migrant workers. We also respond to actual political economic situations through lobbying decision makers and we focus on strengthening and building alliances with other organisations to encourage policy change.

2. Migrant Worker's Empowerment against HIV/AIDS: This program aims to empower migrant workers, families and grass roots organisations in their source area about HIV/AIDS and migration issues. Migrant workers and their families are involved in some research to map out and build strategies to counter their problems with HIV/AIDS. In addition we provide and disseminate information services for migrant workers related to HIV/AIDS and trafficking

3. Legal Aid: Providing legal aid and assistance related with referral services for women migrant workers with HIV/AIDS and those who become victims of trafficking.

4. Campaigning: We are regularly campaigning on issues of migration and trafficking, and migration and health (HIV/AIDS) through press conferences, talk shows on TV and radio, discussions, book-reviews, public dialogue etc. SP also produces campaign materials such as brochures, stickers, pins, fact-sheets, clothes and posters and SP's bulletin.

AWID: How does HIV/AIDS impact women's rights?

TZ: Based on SP's experience establishing a program of HIV/AIDS for women migrant workers, we have identified numerous impacts of HIV/AIDS on women's rights.

Women migrant workers suffer various kinds of injustices as a result of being infected with HIV/AIDS, one of which is the violation of their right to work. For example, migrant workers in Indonesia, 70% of which are women, are obliged to have a medical test (including HIV test) before their departure to foreign countries and then when they arrive on work sites. Unfit migrant workers, especially those who suffer from HIV/AIDS, are not allowed to work abroad. If by the time they have another medical check on receiving countries, they are discovered to be infected with HIV, they are sent home/deported.

Women with HIV/AIDS experience more discrimination and stigmatisation  because of their health status. This comes from family, society, institutions including hospitals) and the government. For example: with HIV, women will soon be labeled as promiscuous or as prostitutes or disobedient to religious values. Women with HIV are often forced to hide their health status based on the desire of the family because the disease is considered shameful, so only mothers are allowed to know. The rest of the family only know that the woman is suffering a serious illness (for example: TB). In hospital, many nurses and paramedics are hesitant and afraid of giving treatment, they often move the patient around as a gesture of avoidance. Patients with HIV/AIDS are often placed in the same location as patients with other diseases, again, such as TB.

Women are often considered as the spreading agent of HIV/AIDS. On one side, the campaign to use female condoms can be seen as contributing to the assumption of women being the problem source and at the same time it adds to women's burden in preventing HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS is also related to women's reproductive health and children's growth. Mothers with HIV/AIDS who are pregnant are advised to have a caesarean birth to prevent their child from HIV infection. Furthermore, they are told they can't breast feed their child and breast milk is replaced with formula milk for the baby. This influences their emotional relationship with their child and the growth of the baby (physically and mentally).

AWID: Why should women's rights organizations be focusing on HIV/AIDS?

TZ: Based on SP's research about the unique vulnerability of migrant workers  (MWs) to AIDS in 2004, 2005, and 2006, we found that MWs are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS in every stage of migration (pre-departure, post-arrival, and reintegration). Specific vulnerabilities to HIV/AIDS during the migration process include:

Pre-Departure phase:

During the recruitment process sexual harassment and rape can be perpetuated by the Broker ('Calo'). At the medical check, prospective Women MW's only wear underwear as they undergo their medical check which makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse. In addition, there is a lack of information among the potential MWs that HIV/AIDS can be transmitted by infected needles. Most MWs do not have the confidence while they are in the hospital to ask for a sterile needle. In the Holding Centre, sexual harassment or rape by holding centre personnel may take place, as well as sexual relations (be it voluntary or forced).

Post Arrival (On Site)

The main factors causing vulnerability are sexual relations (be it voluntary or forced) and the quality of medical checks and health services in destination countries. Other factors of vulnerability on site include loneliness, homesickness and social isolation, economic pressure, harsh working and living conditions, a lack of access to health services and information and gender injustices faced by migrant workers. Women are mostly placed in vulnerable workplaces, such as domestic and entertainment workers. which makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse by their employer, college, and customers.

Returning home (Reintegration)

Women experience sexual harassment and rape, perpetuated by airport personnel and taxi drivers at and from the airport, sexual relations (be it voluntary or forced).

Women whose spouses are MWs are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS because biologically, women are more 'easily' infected and there is limited information on HIV/AIDS and migration realities. Women trust their husband's fidelity; are economically more dependent than their male partners; have lesser or no negotiating power for safer sex; and lesser or no access to information and services on HIV/AIDS. Violence against women also makes women more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

Generally, factors of women MW's vulnerability to HIV/AIDS are: The feminisation of migration (Most of Indonesia's MWs are women); lack of information on HIV/AIDS and migration realities; inadequate programs to inform migrant workers on HIV/AIDS; too many people in each orientation class, wrong information, limited time, and top-down method (pre-departure orientation seminar (PDOS) and Pre Departure Training); difficulties in reaching out to excluded people (eg.domestic worker); mandatory HIV antibody testing in Indonesia and destination countries; low rate of condom use and poor health seeking-behaviour.

Thus, the role of women's organisations (including our organisation) is vital in order to empower and give the appropriate information to women about HIV/AIDS, their rights (eg. rights to health, rights to work) along with efforts in advocating for the just regulation on stipulating prevention acts toward HIV/AIDS.

To learn more about Solidaritas Perempuan, visit their website:

[1] BRIDGE (development-gender) and the Internatinonal Community of Women living with HIV and AIDS, 2007. Women and Girls living with HIV/AIDS: Overview and Annotated Bibliography. By Emily Esplen.

For a complete copy of the report, please click here.

Published in: Rochelle Jones, How Does HIV/AIDS Impact on Women's Rights? Association of Women's Rights in Development (AWID), 23 June 2007.