HIV and gender equality – why are we still asking for mutual recognition?

July 20, 2021

‘Although it’s rarely acknowledged, one of the most compelling and radical models of activist care was developed by women in Africa amid the AIDS epidemic – one of the most devastating gendered crises facing the continent in the late 20th century’ (Jessica Horn 2019 Open Democracy).

We have just attended the Generation Equality Forum and we repeatedly found ourselves asking where is HIV? Generation Equality is not unique in this regard – feminist forums only rarely acknowledge the contributions of women, girls and gender non-conforming people living with HIV. There are many examples we could give of feminist webinars we attend where there is total silence around HIV, even when numerous other intersecting aspects of women’s lives are mentioned and celebrated. This silence and sidelining is reflected too in feminist books and articles we read. This is true to such an extent that we jump with excitement when we DO see HIV mentioned in discussions within the feminist movements.

And when we attend events and review strategies related to HIV, we still find ourselves asking where is gender equality? There often seems to be little detailed understanding of the interactions between gender inequality and HIV, including HIV-related stigma and mental health. The decades-long vocal calls from women and girls living with and affected by HIV for a response that reflects gendered priorities and lives are far too often ignored or minimally attended to.

So we find that – as Jessica Whitbread of ICW expressed in an ICW Feminist School webinar on feminist organising and HIV this week – working on gender and HIV is a tough space. There is little visibility of HIV in the women’s movement, and not enough attention to gendered, feminist and gender-transformative approaches in the HIV space. We wonder why this is. As we see it, HIV acts as a magnifying glass of patriarchy, and women living with HIV have been at the forefront of what is now referred to as ‘feminist leadership’ for decades. Yet with very few exceptions this seems to go unrecognised. 

Generation Equality provides a new global framework for work to accelerate gender equality actions and mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most visionary agenda for women’s rights and empowerment everywhere. Generation Equality brings together feminist organisations and movements, women’s networks, governments, corporations, NGOs, youth-led groups and foundations to secure concrete, ambitious, and transformative commitments for gender equality, shaped by six thematic Action Coalitions on areas that are vital for gender transformation, providing a world roadmap for gender equality.  

The Global Acceleration Plan (GAP) 2021-2026 and commitments will set the global agenda on gender equality for the next five years. There will be an ongoing need for work on accountability mechanisms, holding commitment-makers to account, and building our collective action on gender equality.

Now more than ever, HIV is a feminist issue. It remains the leading cause of death of women and girls of reproductive age in Africa. An astonishing 6 of every 7 young people in Africa diagnosed with HIV are female, Gender inequality continues to drive HIV and impact on the lives of women, girls and gender non-conforming people living with HIV. And women, girls and gender non-conforming people living with HIV work tirelessly (under resourced and recognised) to support their communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and reinforced the importance of mutual aid and community members supporting each other. It has starkly illustrated why care is so important and why it needs to be valued. Yet coverage of new models of care are failing to learn from the radical care provided by women living with HIV everywhere, including from the global south: a model of care that has not focused purely on treatment but on much needed holistic support for women and girls, their families, and communities, in all areas of their lives. 

Let’s make visible the leadership and work of women and girls living with and affected by HIV. Let’s call for it to be recognised within feminist movements, as well as within the HIV sector. And let’s build connections between the two. Otherwise the rights and interests of women and girls living with and affected by HIV will continue to be ‘a tough space’ and the gender equality movement will fail to learn from their extraordinary work.

We’d love to have more conversations about this, and understand if others share these perspectives.

By Emma Bell and Fiona Hale.

Reviewed by Martha Tholanah, Jacquelyne Alesi, Rebecca Mbewe, Longret Kwardem, Alice Welbourn and Jane Shepherd.

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