Every woman deserves access to both information and services for HIV testing as well as contraception. If she is HIV negative, she needs access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). If she is HIV positive, she needs to be on treatment to keep herself healthy, prevent HIV transmission to her sexual partner/s and lower the risk for transmission to her baby during pregnancy, labour and breastfeeding.
Yet many women still don’t have the final say about their own sexual health. Traditional gender roles, patriarchal beliefs, HIV stigma and gender-based violence (GBV) are disempowering, and are preventing women from accessing support- and health services and driving HIV infections. Moreover, women struggle to negotiate condom use and many are being infected with HIV during their pregnancies.
Additionally, it is young women bearing the brunt of the continuing spread of HIV. A recent USAid report has uncovered that every week, 3,100 females aged 15 to 24 in sub-Saharan Africa become infected with HIV. At the South African Aids Conference this year, the high rate of teenage pregnancies and HIV among young women took the spotlight.
Right to Care is a partner of the USAid-funded Dreams programme that supports and empowers adolescent girls and young women. The programme follows a multi-stakeholder approach to address the root causes of the challenges young women face.
One of the drivers of HIV infections is gender-based violence because a woman is unable to establish her perpetrator’s HIV status or negotiate condom use. It undermines her ability to report abuse and access support. If she knows her abuser and is financially dependent on him, she is often scared to leave the relationship.
Many women hide their antiretroviral treatment from their partners because they are shunned for taking it and others are stigmatised when taking PrEP because people think they are taking antiretroviral treatment.
Right to Care, in line with global goals to end HIV, is building understanding about HIV treatment as prevention. It supports the Department of Health in two rural districts.
Its basket of care includes HIV testing services and initiating HIV-positive women on antiretroviral treatment or PrEP. This is in addition to the provision of family planning and contraception services they provide, as well as screening for cervical cancer, among other provisions of support.
The NGO is also fostering comprehension around the importance of treatment adherence and viral-load monitoring among the patients it serves.
When someone living with HIV is on treatment, it lowers the level of HIV (the viral load) in their blood down to an undetectable level meaning the person is virally suppressed and cannot pass on HIV during sex. Viral suppression also reduces the risk of passing HIV on during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
The supplementary steps supported by the NGO encompass:
More can be done. Greater focus is required to remove societal challenges that women face when accessing support. They need to better understand their rights.