Empowerment of Women as a Sure Way of Reducing the Spread of HIV/AIDS

Leonorah Kwamboka
When we talk in discussions and conferences on women empowerment we mainly discuss the economic benefits of empowering women however when the social aspects are discussed little is said about empowerment being a way of reducing the HIV/AIDS spread. As the title suggests, this article is about how empowering women will reduce the spread and vulnerability of getting infected among women as well as men.

To begin with, women’s economic dependence increases their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. Most women and girls opt to get into other means of earning a livelihood like prostitution due to lack of finances to sustain themselves. In prostitution, women hardly get the opportunity to negotiate for safe sex which thus exposes them to a high risk of sexually transmitted diseases and emotional distress.

Most African societies have always and still practise wife inheritance. A woman who depended on her husband will have no choice but accept being inherited so that she can have someone to take care of her and her children. If the dead husband or incoming husband is infected with HIV/AIDS then this will further increase the chances of the spread of the virus.

Secondly, a woman who is not empowered lacks the sense of assertiveness that would make it easy for her to decline sexual advances from men without fearing to provoke the man. Violence against women has been a major factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS among women and girls especially sexual violence perpetuated by infected men. According to researchers Heise, Ellsberg and Gottemoeller, in population-based studies conducted worldwide, anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of women report physical assault by partner and one third to half of physically abused women also report sexual coercion. (Geeta Rao Gupta, International Centre for Research on Women)

Thirdly, many societies have a culture that considers it taboo to openly address issues of sexuality which results in many women being ignorant about safe sex practises. Further, under these cultural norms and practises women have no or less power in matters of sex leaving all the power with the male partners who dictate the when and how of sex. This deters women from being informed about the risks involved in sex and their preventive measures; even when they are informed they are unable to negotiate for safe sex due to existing power relations that are influenced by the patriarchal system in these societies.  

Finally virginity, something women are still expected to uphold in many societies until marriage, is also a factor which contributes to the ignorance that surrounds sexuality and thus aid the spread of HIV/AIDS.  This societal expectation holds girls from seeking relevant information on sex lest they be considered sexually active. This ultimately means girls grow up well into young adults without the right information on safe sex and in most cases with distorted notions and beliefs on sexuality. When they finally become sexually active, because they are not well informed, they are not in a position and do have the courage to say no to sexual advances or report cases of rape when they happen. They may thus get infected with HIV/AIDS.

Women empowerment enhances financial stability among women so that they are able to take care of themselves reducing the need for such practises like prostitution and wife inheritance. The empowered woman not only has the power to make assertive decisions but also has multiple options and the freedom to choose the kind of life she wants to lead. She can also assert herself in any sexual relationship she gets into with the power to negotiate for safe sex, when and how to engage in sex without any fear of violence or reprimands.

Further, a comprehensive sex education need to be introduced and actively implemented in all societal institutions like mainstream educational institutions at all levels, churches, open public forums and open discussions encouraged within households. This education should focus on both girls and boys and should focus on such things as the risks involved in unsafe sexual activities, the proper use of contraceptives and HIV/AIDS.