The Feminisation of HIV


The Feminisation of HIV refers to the increasing prevalence of HIV among women worldwide and the ways in which gender discrimination – both social and institutional- contribute to women’s increased vulnerability to HIV infection. In the Caribbean, women make up 53% of the population living with HIV. And young women between the ages of 15-24 have three to six times higher incidence of HIV than young men the same age range. High rates of violence against women; poverty and economic dependence on men; and cultural attitudes regarding relationships and sexual behaviour; all contribute to the increasing incidence of HIV among Caribbean women.

WomenSpeak spoke with Petula Lee who works as an HIV Cousellor in Trinidad and Tobago. She has contributed to and managed several projects for various regional agencies and initiatives including PANCAP and Jhpiego.
imageHow long have you been working in HIV in the Caribbean or Trinidad? 
I have been working in HIV for the past thirteen years, both in T&T and the Caribbean. I have worked in prevention, counselling and testing, treatment, care, support, education and training, programming and monitoring and evaluating. I now work mainly in Counselling and Testing for HIV and training of HIV counselling and testing providers.
What changes have you noticed over the years in the way HIV is impacting women? 

More women are testing. Some are initiating condom use at the start of the relationship. Many women are not reliant on men so this gives them the freedom to end the relationship if the man is unfaithful or if they believe that he is putting them at risk. I met a young woman last week, who ended the relationship because at the end of the sexual act she discovered that he had removed the condom during the act without her knowledge. Still, there are some women who would test ever year but go back to the same situation.

imageWhat “same situation”?

They are in a relationship where they know that the man is unfaithful, he does not or will not use condoms. He also does not believe that he needs to be tested or that his infidelity puts him at risk for HIV. The client will knowingly go back to this situation. A lot of the time the woman is ‘biding time’ either for the children to grow up, for her to get a job or for him to move on. There are also some who are in the marriage ’till death do us part’ and test every six months. They say “He is my husband what can I do?” They hope and pray for a negative result and also for divine intervention.

 In your counselling of HIV infected women, what are some of the most common stories you hear about how women become infected? 

 The most common story with HIV infection is that they trusted the other partner. Even though they started using condoms (at the beginning of the relationship), they stopped once they thought that they were comfortable with each other. So I tell clients that trust in HIV starts after both persons have tested maybe twice (baseline and confirmatory) depending on their situation, and stay faithful after.  Another story is that the man does not like how the condom feels, and he looked ‘clean’.

What does ‘baseline and confirmatory’ mean?

The “baseline” test may be the 1st time the client is testing, or the first test after their unprotected sexual encounter. If this test is done today, it will tell us the client’s HIV status 3 months ago. Any unprotected sex they had in the last three months would not show up in this test, therefore the client would need to be tested again (confirmatory test) 3 months after the last time that they had unprotected sex.

 imageHow does relationship violence – (coerced sex, battering, rape. financial abuse) – contribute to women contracting HIV? 

 I have observed that in such instances (of relationship violence) that these women and girls do not tell anyone about the incident or ordeal. It is only in trying to understand their ‘story’ that I find out. These clients I usually refer to Rape Crisis and/or for further counseling. Those who have been physically abused, by the time they decide to get tested, they have already addressed their spouse’s “behaviour” and are in better place mentally, if not physically, and I would refer them for further counselling or to the Domestic Violence Hotline.

What do you mean by “in a better place” – have they left the relationship?

 Some may have made compromises and decisions that are tolerable, livable. Others have accepted their situation, found solace in the church, found some way not to have sex, or found somewhere where they can escape in their minds, and some have left the relationship.

 What do you feel needs to be done to lower the rate of HIV infection in women and girls in the Caribbean? 

 I feel that proper counselling needs to be done across the board (for men and women). Counselling that includes exploring with the client how they can reduce their risk. These days our HIV Testing is focused on getting as many persons tested as possible. I feel that more education needs to be done as the general population doe not understand the basics of HIV.

 A part of what the counsellor should also do is explore ways that women and girls can ‘better’ themselves. We usually have information on  the level of education and job details from the clients so we can encourage and give referrals to some of the programmes available for continuing education, skill training or further counselling they may need.

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Gary Acosta – Broken One

Gary Acosta is a 24 year old spoken word poet from the republic of Trinidad & Tobago. Artistic expression and performance has always been a passion of this young Caribbean wordsmith. On November 20th, 2011, Gary along with his longtime musical collaborator Til Shiloh released their music video “Broken One” to help raise awareness about domestic violence and it’s devastating impact on women, children and families. The WomenSpeak Project spoke to Gary about his journey with “Broken One”.

What motivated you to embark on the Broken One project?

Til Shiloh mentioned to me that he had been working on a song called Broken One close to 3 years but just never could put the words to the music. When he told me the idea of the song it struck close to home for it was not only one week before when a close friend of my family was brutally murdered by her husband.

Due to the fact that the case is currently before the courts it will be remiss of me to go into the details of the crime as I would not want to prejudice any decision, however, hearing her stories of domestic abuse was horrifying. Additionally, it was a wake-up call to me personally because I would have never guessed she was suffering through this. I decided then and there that I had to do my part in my own way in spreading awareness of Domestic Violence

How did the process of writing the song and making the video impact you?

Writing this song and producing this video was an emotional roller coaster. I submerged myself in all these stories that I would have read on the newspaper, internet and as well from one-on-one encounters with survivors. My idea behind the writing was to tell the story of my family friend as if she was experiencing it herself without being too literal and glorify the actual abuse.

The video was a tedious process from creating a screenplay – which Steven M. Taylor (Director) and Stephanie Matadeen (2nd Asst. Director) has to take a lot of credit for – to casting of the roles to actually shooting and editing.

While on set and having to recount these experiences internally is somewhat like putting myself into these women and men’s positions. At times to be honest I became extremely depressed and was unable to properly function during the day. That in itself gave me more motivation because if I could feel like this just thinking how they felt then what’s to say how it is in reality.

What has been the response to the video? What were your expectations and have they played out thus far?

The response to the video by the general public has been amazing, Within one day of releasing the video there were hundreds of people (literally) sharing it with their friends on facebook. Additionally we had excellent support through Rhonda Alfonso and Priya Ganness-Nanton working behind the scenes to get the message further.

Before the release, as early as August 2011 we approached various Government Ministries, Corporate entities and organizations that deal with issues such as Domestic Violence. To be frank we didn’t get any support from them which is why we are so thankful for the WomenSpeak Project for supporting us!

My expectations or my wishes for Broken One is that it can be used not only in Trinidad & Tobago but as well internationally as a tool to assist in the counseling of men, women and children who are either current victims or survivors of domestic abuse. Additionally, I hope that it can also be used as a tool to spread the awareness of the issue to a wider public.

The theme for the 2011 commemoration of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is “Youth leadership in Preventing and Eliminating Violence Against Women. In what ways do you think young people, and young men in particular can demonstrate such leadership?

A simple act such as speaking out is showing the courage and leadership to take up the fight in the elimination of violence against women. There are several youth organizations which can lend in this cause, and as well can allow young men to show their leadership in the fight.

We are sometimes brought up thinking that some are born leaders and some are born followers but to me it is not so. A simple thing as speaking out about domestic violence is pioneering. Being forthright and letting their friends, family etc know that they are definitely against the violence against women is a form of leadership that is rare in society. To me that is most important, first and foremost.

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Exercising Personal Leadership to Eliminate Violence Against Women

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. And not a moment too soon. All around the world today there will be marches, exhibitions, symposiums, all manner of important events to help bring about a better understanding of the ways in which Violence Against Women is perpetrated and the devastating effect it has on women.

Today also marks the beginning of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence which is an international human rights campaign to raise awareness and encourage action to help end violence against women. The 16 Days begin on November 25th and ends on December 10 – International Human Rights day, to emphasize the fact that #VAW is a human rights issue.

Women have a right to be free from violence; from abuse by their intimate partners, sexual violence, trafficking and murder. But women are not only subject to violence from individuals, they are often subject to violence from the media, the legislature and even the state. 

Over the next #16Days we will discuss these various types of violence and hear from extraordinary everyday folks who are doing what they can to help end gender-based violence.

What can YOU do?

YOU can exercise your own personal leadership in helping to change the pervasive cultural inertia around VAW issues and challenge the destructive messages and thinking which blames women for the violence perpetrated against them.  

For a start you can reblog and share our posts and participate in our discussions on twitter and facebook. Moreover, you can start your own conversations with friends and take the initiative to find out and share information about Crisis Hotlines, Services and legal recourse for women and men who have suffered gender-based violence.

We also hope that some of you will be inspired by the work of our activists and discover ways to use your special talents and abilities to contribute to making the Caribbean, and the world a safer, freer and more just place for women and girls.

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BlogHer 2011 International Activist Panel

I recently attended Blogher11 and participated in the International Activist Scholarship Winners’ Panel. It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience. More than anything I learned that women all over the world share the same hopes, aspirations and challenges. And they are also incredibly powerful and I definitely felt that energy as 4000 women bloggers from around the world met to discuss their work, learn from each other and give love and support to one another’s projects. Women cried, laughed, danced, networked, formed alliances and shared their secrets to success. I felt grounded and inspired.

Here is a transcript of the panel discussion with my fellow panelists – Reem Abbas from Sudan who blogs about social and political issues in Sudan on her blog Wholeheartedly-Sundaniya; Elianne Ramos of Latism, who spoke on behalf of Yoani Sanchez an activist from Cuba whose blog Generation Y has earned her worldwide renown but has resulted in her being considered an enemy of the state by the Cuban Government. She was denied a travel visa by the Cuban Government to attend the event; And Cheryl Contee who moderated the panel and blogs at JackandJillPolitics.

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BlogHer 11

BlogHer 11

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Alake Pilgrim – Writing Brings Us Together

“When we realise that we share issues then we can actually think about how to change them collectively, because sometimes as an individual, things can seem overwhelming if you’re trying to address them just by yourself.” ~ Alake Pilgrim

Share Your Story and help build a community that can work towards eradicating discrimination against women. 

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Vernice Philip (Trinidad and Tobago) tells why she is excited about The WomenSpeak Project

“Writing is at the same time the most selfish and the most generous thing you can do”

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Are You An Advocate? Yes, You Are!

Anyone can be an advocate. Being an advocate means

1. You feel strongly about an issue

2. You are taking positive actions to help influence change

There are many simple and creative things each of us can do to help make the world more equitable and just.

Here are some everyday things that you can do to become an advocate in your own life and for others.

1. Learn more about whatever issue you feel strongly about. Read books, blogs, newspaper articles, attend conferences and public consultations.

2. Tell your story. Let others know about your experiences; this helps raise awareness and helps others relate better.

3. Share links to articles, causes and events

4. Start conversations among your family and friends, learn other viewpoints.

5. Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper and share your point of view on a current issue.

6. Write a letter to the Management of your company if you think you and others are being treated unfairly.

7. Ensure your actions, speech and behaviour reflect your principles and beliefs.

8. Speak up when you hear friends and co-workers make offensive or derogatory comments about a group or cause that you believe in.

9. Volunteer with an organisation that supports your areas of interest

10. Encourage your Company to support an NGO, sponsor an event or special interest group

11. Believe in yourself! Your thoughts and opinions have value.

There are many other simple and creative ways we can all work towards making a more equitable and just world.

What are some of the ways you advocate?

check out our discussion on facebook 

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Bocas Lit Fest 2011

Acclaimed Caribbean Women Writers at the Bocas Lit Fest 2011 in Trinidad and Tobago talk about writing as a tool for personal growth and processing difficult experiences and for creating social change. More in depth comments from these writers to come in future videos.

Learn more about How/Why to Tell Your Story

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