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There is evidence that there are gender differences in the acquiring of HIV infection.
“Just as homophobia fuels the HIV crisis among gay men and bisexual men, so sexism and gender inequality fuel the HIV crisis among women (Gorna 1996).“ HIV has affected all social classes, but not equally. Poor and ethnic minority women are disproportionally infected with HIV/AIDS in developed countries, and gender differences are likely to affect the poor and disadvantaged women to a higher degree (Berer 1993).
In USA, affected women are more likely to be poor, from an ethnic minority and from a drug using community. In New York City it was found that affluent areas have much lower HIV prevalence than areas where the poor people live (Berer 1993).
In Toronto Canada it was found that the incidence of AIDS was growing fastest in the black, predominantly Caribbean community (Wilson 1990).
Although there is evidence on socio-economic and gender-related differences in the risk of HIV infection (Gorna 1996, Berer 1994, Alcorn 1997), few studies looked at these issues in Europe. The main focus of European researches in the field of HIV and women is on issues such as risk behaviour, exposure, population groups at risk, pregnancy in HIV positive women, ante-natal testing and vertical transmission (de Cock et al., 1998, Nicoll A. et al., 1998, Gibb D. et al., 1998). There is more information on HIV and women at risk in developing countries than in Europe.
No wonder, that feminists like Robin Gorna suspect that “Fundamental to public concern about women and AIDS is anxiety about child-bearing potential and risks to
heterosexual men. Women are simply pit stops en route to more vital populations:
babies and men.“ (Gorna 1996) For example, a French study on socio-economic consequences in HIV infection in women and children identified a dramatic shift in the epidemic towards women and children with 0.9% of pregnant women infected. HIV positive women were found to be predominantly young, unmarried, smokers, foreign-born or have used drugs (Henrion R., Mandelbrot L. 1990). No explicit socio-economic factors were taken into account, as one might have expected from the title of the study.
A European Collaborative Study confirmed the growing number of infected women in Europe and that an increasing proportion of them have acquired their infection through heterosexual contact. The examination of the socio-demographic characteristics of the women in the study found that most of the women were white, primiparae, married or cohabiting and born in Europe. Two-thirds had a history of injecting drug use (IDU) (Thorne C., Newell ML, Dunn D., Peckham C. 1996). They did not include questions concerning sex workers, nor socio-economic factors.
A Medical Research Council (MRC) collaborative study of HIV infection in women looked at ethnic differences in women with HIV infection in Britain and Ireland. It analysed baseline data (such as ethnic group, sexual history, likely route of HIV infection, reasons for HIV testing and first AIDS-defining disease) among women who had attended genito-urinary clinics. 65% of women were white and 29% were black African. 93% of black African and 43% of white women were probably infected through sexual intercourse. Injecting drug use was found to be the most likely route of infection in 55% of white women. 7% of white women and 16% of black African women had developed AIDS at the time when the HIV infection was diagnosed. The distribution of the first AIDS defining diagnoses differed: In white women, the most common disease was Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia; in black African women it was pulmonary tuberculosis. The study concluded that there are important differences between black African and white women in sexual history and route of transmission, disease stage at diagnosis and pattern of AIDS-defining diseases (Anderson et al., 1996). The socio-economic status of these women was not taken into account.
A US study conducted by the Department of Health Education, University of Maryland, looked at the impact of AIDS on African-American women and found that the disproportionate impact of HIV on these women is devastating to their lives, their families, their communities, and the society. Among AIDS cases in women, 52,5% are black. It is assumed that African-American women with HIV are the least powerful and most burdened of the society. The study concludes that “these women whose behaviour places them at risk for HIV infection must be the focus of increased prevention and treatment efforts. Health educators must overcome their fear, class prejudice, and racial bias in order to form the inter-racial coalition necessary to lead our nation in the struggle to stop the devastation of AIDS among African-American women and children” (Quinn 1993).
As we can see from the previous example, there is a risk that although sympathising with the disadvantaged women, findings may be used to “blame the victim” or to patronise. Prevention messages involving this approach may continue to stress behaviour change, rather than developing a holistic response to HIV by taking into account the disadvantaged situation of these groups.
The US feminist magazine MS explored:
“This epidemic offers terrible proof of the dire need for women’s empowerment… Women need prevention strategies and programmes that addresses the social, economic, and political realities that increase our risk of infection.” (MS 1995) However, prevention initiatives to empower women and to develop self-esteem are rare. There is little work that addresses the specific and complex gender and socioeconomic related constraints which increase the risk of HIV infection.
Excursus: The risk of HIV infection in disadvantaged women in developing countries There is more information on these issues in women in developing countries. Various studies have been carried out in respect of disadvantaged women in developing countries and their increased risk of HIV infection. Although the main focus in this report is on European countries a short excursus is made to highlight the experiences of disadvantaged women in Thailand, Botswana and Brazil in relation to HIV infection, and to present some of the strategies which have been developed to fight the virus. Empowerment of women was found to be a successful approach in HIV
• In Thailand heterosexual contact has been identified to be the main route of HIV transmission. Female commercial sex workers play a key role in the spread of HIV into the general population (Weniger et al., 1991). A cross-sectional study was undertaken aiming to identify socio-economic and demographic factors related to prevalent HIV infection among female commercial sex workers in Thailand 1992 (van Griensven et al., 1995).
The study found that women who had started commercial sex work at a young age were at higher risk of HIV infection. This can be explained by the fact that younger girls may be physically more vulnerable, have not yet developed appropriate negotiation skills to deal with their customers and generally work in lower-class brothels with low use of condoms and high HIV prevalence among the clients.
Poverty and the responsibility to maintain the family were found to be the main reason to enter commercial sex work. Being in debt with the employer, mostly due to forwarded money to the women’s family, increased the risk of infection: these debts induce women to work longer, to have more customers and also to accept unprotected intercourse when more money is offered.
The authors conclude that prevention programmes have to take into account these findings. Efforts should be undertaken to empower these young commercial sex workers through peer-group education to improve their communication and negotiation skills (van Griensven et al., 1995).
• Botswana has currently one of the highest incidence rates of HIV infection in Africa. A study on the socio-economic and cultural factors influencing the transmission of HIV in Botswana identified gender issues as the main factors, which explain the rapid spread of HIV: the position of women in society, especially their lack of power in sexual relationships, and cultural attitudes to fertility (MacDonald 1996).
The traditionally perceived superiority of men over women is still actual reality. Men dominate relationships and there is generally a lack of respect for women. A significant number of women in Botswana stated that in their first experience of sexual intercourse they were physically forced. Women feel at risk from HIV because of cultural expectations to provide sexual satisfaction to their husband or boyfriend.
They feel powerless in demanding or negotiating safer sex and condom use.
A significant factor in the context of HIV is the cultural imperative for a single women to have a child to prove her fertility and to endorse her relationship with a man. A married women who failed to have a child is likely to be neglected or illtreated by her husband. Many young women want to prevent this humiliation by proving their fertility before marriage. At the same time men must prove their manliness by making a women pregnant. Fertility is therefore a cultural determinant of the non-use of condoms (MacDonald 1996).
• In Sao Paulo State, Brazil, a study has been conducted with female sex workers in Sao Paulo State, Brazil, with the aim to determine how HIV risk behaviour and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases vary according to socio-economic status and city. The study found that the lower the socio-economic status of the sex workers, the longer were the hours worked each day, and the greater the number of clients per day. 23% feared violence if they insisted that their clients wear condoms. A similar fear was expressed by 74% regarding their non-client sexual partner. 11% of these sex workers were HIV positive, 43% had syphilis and 39% hepatitis B. Those with a lower socio-economic status were more likely than those with a higher socio-economic status to be infected with HIV, syphilis and hepatitis B.
The authors found a correlation between infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among sex workers in Sao Paulo State and differences in socioeconomic status. They concluded that interventions to prevent HIV transmission among sex workers must be tailored to the local environment and, in particular, to the socio-economic status of these workers (Lurie et al., 1995).
4.1.6 Injecting drug users and socio-economic differences in HIV infection
Although intravenous drug users (IDUs) are identified as a key factor in the transmission of HIV, little epidemiological information exists on this group, particularly in relation to HIV infection. Usually they are classified to poor and marginalised groups (Bochow, 1998). But few explicit information exists on their socio-economic background.
Mainliners, a HIV prevention project for drug users in south London, characterises
“There is no such thing as a stereotypical injecting drug user or female sex worker.
Individuals within these groups vary widely and range from: very rich to the very poor, articulate to inarticulate, well educated to ill educated, people with high and those with low self-esteem, employed to unemployed…“ (Mainliners 1997) Resent research in UK confirmed assumptions for a strong relation between problem drug use and deprivation. Explanations for this relationship can be that problem drug users drift into the poorer areas of cities as with increasing drug use they lose their job, their family and home, and also that drug use for some individuals in deprived circumstances may be perceived as a viable alternative to alleviate the harsh realities of their lives (Drug Link 1994).
The National AIDS Manual acknowledged the poor socio-economic background of drug users: Drug addiction has been heavily concentrated amongst disadvantaged populations in the US and Europe. Drug addiction has been a problem especially in areas with high levels of unemployment amongst male youth (Alcorn 1997).