Black Women and HIV/AIDS
Date: Friday, December 01 @ 23:42:09 UTC
By Ayanna, rootswomen.com/ayanna
December 01, 2006
Women are at the highest risk for contraction of the HIV virus. Current statistics for Trinidad and Tobago state that the number of female HIV positive cases in the age group of 15–29, make up 65% of the total cases for the same age group. These statistics lead us to many questions and inevitably should draw greater attention to issues of gender discrimination, racism and poverty. With millions of dollars being pumped into HIV research internationally and great media exposure in Trinidad and Tobago, it is equally important to examine the values that exist and fuel the spread of the disease in its most vulnerable group, African women.
There are several biological and sociological issues that cause women to be at greater risk. The biological make up of male and female genitalia makes it easier for bacteria to be transmitted and stored in the genitalia of a woman rather than that of a man. As a result, there is a greater risk of women contracting the virus from their male counterparts, rather than men contracting the disease from women. Simply put, biologically, women are more prone to HIV contraction.
Social factors, in addition to this biological tendency, places women at great risk not just for HIV infection but to be often in disadvantaged positions with regard to their sexual choices, economic freedom and access to information and medical care. Some women find themselves in situations of domestic abuse due to entrenched male arrogance and existing discrimination against women in the workplace. Women with children often find themselves at an even greater risk as they are often keen to seek the interests of their children which may cause them to remain in relationships that may be financially viable but not in their best interest. Older males often prey on young women for sexual favours in exchange for money or material goods. Poverty often drives young women to prostitution to feed families. Poor attitudes about sex and sexuality in general also contribute to people simply making poor decisions with regard to their sexual and reproductive health. Inadequate approaches to sexuality education in Trinidad and Tobago even further disadvantages young females as they are not given clear and well-reasoned information, not simply about HIV and sexual protection but about ways to navigate their burgeoning sexuality and relationships with the opposite sex. While both sexes are victims of poor sexual attitudes and can suffer great emotional damage because of this misinformation, socially, it is young women that are most vulnerable. These young women go out into a world that is weighted against them without information and without concrete perspectives with which to view their sexuality.
Black women, therefore, bear the double weight of gender and racial discrimination. If women in general are often seen as sexual objects by males, can be prey to imbalances in the workplace and are sometimes out of necessity bound to relationships because of the presence of children and poor domestic violence law enforcement, then black women deal with all these issues tenfold. Racism allows black and white males to see black women as the least valued and the most open for sexual oppression, and discriminates against them in financial and educational opportunities. In addition, centuries of colonialism and internalization of poor attitudes to Self opens many black women to poor self-value which can lead to making poor sexual choices due to negative body image, low self-esteem and depression.
It is in light of this complex situation that we must view the attitudes toward HIV and the sexuality of black women. Several discourses surround our ideas of sexuality. Perhaps most prevailing in the African Diaspora is the Christian religious discourse that places woman in the impossible situation of being simultaneously the passive receptacle for male sexual advances, the revered goddess figure of purity, and the temptress or vile seducer in league with evil to tempt good men. Biblical traditions, the greatest tool of colonialism gave women few frameworks within which they should view their sexuality – the Virgin Mary, pure, unsullied, without sexual desire or context, the bearer of life without the sully of sexual activity; Delilah the vile seducer who uses her wiles to tempt a righteous man to his downfall; Eve the originator of evil due to her sexual wiles and Mary Magdalene, the reformed and repentant whore. If we throw Jezebel, the Whore of Babylon into the mix, we see all the evils of man's actions and the coming world personified in the sexuality of woman. While there are other images of womanhood in the bible - the obedient handmaidens, the steadfast wife - they are few and less well developed or popular in terms of their impact. While ancient African and other Eastern traditions saw sexuality as a necessary element of spiritual upliftment and the woman as personification of female energy and essence, as the key for this spiritual enlightenment, contemporary Western and increasingly, Eastern societies revile the sexuality of women as something that must be regulated, controlled, taken and profited from. If we see these contemporary attitudes as an inevitable result of removing the female essence from ideas of divinity and power and reviling female sexuality, then it becomes much clearer how our battle with HIV today, especially in the African community, is not simply one of funding for the Third World or medical research, but one of changing attitudes.
A relatively recent song sung by local reggae artist Prophet Benjamin entitled 'Delilah's On the Loose' can shed some further light on the influence of biblical discourse on contemporary social views of women and HIV. Prophet Benjamin personifies HIV and the dangers of irresponsible sexual activity as the figure of a contemporary Delilah:
“She's always on the street
Lurking by the corner
She sound sweet like Tina Turner
If you see she legs and she thighs and she curves
And she look like a sight to see in a bathtub
She smell like queen Elizabeth rose
And she paint up she finger, paint up she toes
Ring pon the navel, ring pon the nose,
chain pon de ankle
Tattoo pon she back and she shave she eyebrows
And it look like cockroach eat off the clothes
And it look like playboy tell she fi pose
I read bout her dey in the book of proverbs” “
Delilah sounds like any number of young women that one can observe in various aspects of popular culture and media aged 15 – 29, spectacularly adorned, worldly, sexually aware, economically disadvantaged, sexually available and Black. She is also the theoretical woman most at risk for HIV infection. Prophet Benjamin warns us away from her, proclaiming,
“Delilah's on the loose
Nah take no sip from she juice
The last man take a sip still confuse
Delilah's on the loose
She like to tie the lace pun your shoes
Want to see yuh bruise up all yuh nose”
This popular image, while based on a slice of reality, distorts the true picture of HIV infection. Many infected women are wives and mothers. Many are middle class and wealthy. Many occupy visible positions in society. Many also resemble the picture painted by the media and popular culture. However all are victims of poor attitudes toward black women in society and all bear the brunt of these attitudes borne both by themselves as well as their male partners.
This image of Delilah presents a peculiar characterization. Contrary to the earlier reasoning set out in this piece, Delilah is not the victim; she is the victimizer. She is not the female society has locked out, but a temptress, using her sexuality to entrap the righteous pure male away from the straight and narrow path. The male must now beware of her, must shun her. This discourse says something very important about the nature of HIV discourse as it exists in the wider society, as opposed to the reality of the social factors that contribute to female vulnerability to this illness. While sociological research, academic texts and the material produced by activist groups shows some awareness of the social factors that increase female vulnerability, it may not translate into wider awareness on the ground, and as a result, does not help to change attitudes towards women. Within the issue of HIV/AIDS, religious discourse, gender discrimination and anti black racism, negative attitudes already firmly entrenched in society now combine to exacerbate the problem. With the awareness that HIV is growing rapidly among young black women, the cycle of abuse is complete; not only is the black woman the victim of society's abuses as a result of which she is most vulnerable to HIV infection, but because of poor and unreasoned attitudes is now the one at fault for its spread. She is again, the reviled Delilah of biblical fame, the culmination of the decadence of western society, the proverbial whore of Babylon.
On this commemoration of World Aids Day we must reflect on the struggle and the progress made but not at the expense of issues that still are not widely discussed. Women in Trinidad and Tobago being at the forefront of much community work and social programs are also at the forefront of the struggle against the disease. Some are in the establishments set up for children living with HIV, they are heading NGO's that spread AIDS awareness and education, they are the teachers struggling to include some element of sexuality education in the classroom, struggling with an inadequate Ministry approved program, they are caregivers to children, spouses, and siblings living with HIV and they are also sufferers; living with the disease themselves. They are living examples of the result of poor attitudes toward sexuality, racism, gender discrimination, poverty, Third World debt and Euro-American economic and political domination.
At ceremonies, rallies and conferences throughout the world, much will be said about groups in the United States' commitment to eradicating AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, and much will be said about much lauded AIDS research. Children who are suffering will read stories and communities will come out in support of the cause in the best way they know how. Little, however, will be said about poor attitudes about black women that still exist and how male arrogance props up these attitudes. Even less will be said about the rape of the African continent through colonialism and slavery; less will be said about unequal trade partnerships that impoverish African and Caribbean nations, and even less will be said about the role of the United States and Europe in propping up regimes in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean to do their bidding, regimes that rape the treasuries, impoverish the people and do nothing to address the legacies of racism and general discrimination. Almost nothing will be said of how all these issues are intertwined and that none can be solved until we address history. Until the root of these attitudes is addressed, HIV will remain a viciously strong enemy -- an enemy that black women will continue to struggle against.