Health Versus Harm: Youth Advocacy and the Fight Against Violence Against Women and Girls and HIV/AIDS

Read Part 1, Health Versus Harm: Zero Tolerance on Violence Against Women and Girls.

Winnie Ncongwane is a 34 year-old single mother of two currently residing in Mbabane, Swaziland. Winnie and I met at the 2010 AIDS Conference and her strength resonated as soon as I sat down next to her.

Recently, Winnie shared with me her thoughts on how she has come into her current role as an empowered HIV-positive woman journalist and activist, “Losing family and friends from HIV/AIDS made me choose to live positively than to die in an abusive have-it-all marriage. I left all the luxury and walked out of my marital home with a bag of clothes for me and my children. I had to start life from scratch, sleeping on a mat on the floor with my children, but at least I had a job. Today, I am happy and I never regret leaving that house for a second. Now, think of a young woman, who has no job or education and depends fully on the man, who might be in the same situation as mine. What can she do, than to stay in such a situation and wait for her last hour? If there are no policies to protect abused women, they will stay as they see no other option out.”

Accordingly, in Swaziland women are more infected by HIV/AIDS. There, females aged between 15 and 19 are infected five times more than their male counterparts, and the ages of 20 to 24 are infected three times more than the males in the same age group.

In July 2010, Winnie started working for the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS after being a member since 2007. She finds her work fulfilling because she is doing what she has always wanted to do, which is communicating and showing her peers that there is life after HIV. Her dream “is to make the HIV/AIDS story worth understanding and most of all remove the stigma that HIV comes with.”

Neelanjana Mukhia is the International Women’s Rights Policy and Campaign Coordinator at ActionAid’s international secretariat and one of the founders who currently manages the international campaign secretariat of Women Won’t Wait: End HIV and Violence Against Women and Girls Now. She shared with me their report What’s the Budget? Where’s the Staff? Moving from Policy to Practice. It cites, “Violence against women and girls and HIV are global, intersecting health and human rights crises. Research demonstrates how women’s risk of, and exposure to, threats or actual violence, particularly intimate partner violence, is a leading factor in women’s heightened vulnerability to HIV. Meanwhile, women are subjected to different forms of violence on a daily basis due to their real or perceived HIV status, whether in their homes, in the workplace, in schools, in health facilities or elsewhere. Both epidemics limit women’s power and participation in society and their agency over their own lives and bodies, sustaining women’s economic, political, social and sexual subordination as well as denial of women’s human rights.”

Where is the good news? UNAIDS recent release of their report, How Young People Are Leading the HIV Revolution, highlights that “HIV prevalence trends in 16 countries show decline among young people 15-24 years.”

Youth advocates are paving the way in HIV/AIDS prevention. As part of Vienna Youth Force 2010 and as an Intern at the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS, Remmy Shawa joined the fight against VAW/G and HIV/AIDS after his Aunt became HIV-positive from her husband and gave birth to her HIV-positive son, his cousin. Born in Zambia, yet raised in a rural area called Chongwe, Remmy lived with his parents before moving to the main city of Lusaka for education. After trying to stay with relatives in Lusaka at 15 years of age, he started staying alone, renting a small room with support from his parents until he finished his high school education.

Remmy’s views on VAW/G as a major factor in HIV/AIDS are just as powerful as his reason for becoming an advocate. “The fight to end the social vulnerability of women to HIV, like harmful gender and cultural practices needs to start with bringing men on board as well. We need to design strategies that work with men and boys not only as perpetrators of gender violence, but as partners with an upper hand in the politics and the economy of our nation. The concepts of masculinity need to be redefined and fatherhood must also be used as one way men can show their love and responsibility to their family in the absence of violence.”

Yvonne Akoth and Kuena Diaho were also part of Vienna Youth Force 2010. From the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, Kuena currently holds a bachelor’s in law degree from the University of Lesotho. Since 2004, she has worked with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) as a youth advocate. She shared how at her first meeting she kept looking at the door waiting for more young women to arrive, but as she kept attending she realized she was experiencing, “more than just meetings but also a safe space for the women to come together and share their experiences. The YWCA has since been my home and more.”

For Yvonne, who was born and raised in the Kwale District which is in the Coast Province of Kenya, her work as a young leader guide for the Kenya Girl Guides Association (KGGA) feels like a privilege. In our recent interview, she shared Kenya’s progress, “Statistically HIV/AIDS is decreasing in Kenya as a result of behavior change among the youth in the age cohort (15 – 24yrs) most likely to be infected. Rates have dropped down due to increase of condom use especially in urban centres, reduction of multiple partners, peer education programs in schools and colleges, TV and Radio advertisements targeting young people, youth friendly one stop centres in most districts, billboards, etc.”

However, Yvonne also shares that even though every African country has a national body to address HIV/AIDS. She still believes that if more young people “are co-opted as members of the various committees in the governing body, many issues affecting young people, especially girls and young women, will be [more] adequately addressed.”

The Global AIDS Alliance (GAA) agrees. GAA’s Policy Director Lisa Schechtman sums up their work ahead. “Through the press conference and the participation of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, we have begun exploring a partnership with the Man Up Campaign, which focuses on empowering youth leaders to end violence against women and girls. In addition, GAA has long been working with other partners that have also identified a multisectoral approach similar to the seven pillars, such as the Women Won’t Wait Campaign, and more recently, the CDC, which is developing a technical package of interventions for the Sexual Violence against Girls Initiative that nearly mirrors the seven pillar approach. That a comprehensive multisectoral response is the only way to halt and mitigate the impacts of violence against women and girls has been accepted; our goal with the new report [Political Breakthrough: Mobilizing Accelerated Action to End Violence Against Women and Girls by 2015] is to emphasize that rhetoric and technical documents alone will never protect women or change the power dynamics or social and gender norms that perpetuate violence. Only real political will and long-term predictable funding directed to local civil society and community-based organizations—those that know their own needs best—will get us there. And without this, our multibillion dollar fight against AIDS is certain to fail.”

No one wants to see this much potential melt away as we move beyond AIDS 2010. Yet even with the power of youth advocacy, new treatments, and the syncing up of organizations with comprehensive approaches, only time, stable funding, and continued action will show true change. As individuals, you can keep momentum going by taking your own steps in the fight against VAW/G and HIV/AIDS by supporting the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) through the Global AIDS Alliance action page. You can also check out Michelle Hamilton's A Magnificent Mile at Runner's World which highlight's Founder of Run for Congo Women Lisa Shannon's work along with Women for Women International. A team to race the 20 Kilometers de Paris on 10.10.10 at 10 AM for Congo Women is currently being assembled to run to benefit the organizations. You can learn more at the Run for Congo Women Team Paris site.

On August 12, 2010 in order to celebrate International Youth Day the UN launched the International Year of Youth. The the theme for 2010 to 2011 is "Our Year our Voice."

Photo credit: AIDS 2010