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Jane Bruning is a national coordinator for Positive Women Inc, a non-governmental organisation in New Zealand that provides support for women and families living with HIV/AIDS. The 54-year-old has been living with HIV for 24 years. She spoke to AlertNet this week on the sidelines of a three-day high-level intergovernmental meeting on HIV/AIDS in Bangkok.
Often people have an image that those who are physically or sexually abused must be from a certain socio-economic background. But it can happen to any person.
My parents work very hard and there was nobody at home when I come back from school so I ended up going to the next door neighbour. Their son was at school with me and their dad was home.
He started telling me he loves me and that this is what you do when you love someone. I was about six. At that age he didn’t penetrate me but there was touching and exposing and that whole... psychological grooming.
Unfortunately, my parents separated and he ended up moving in with my mum. My mother found out when I was 13. At that time I was pushing him away but I didn’t threaten to tell my mother because I didn’t want to hurt her.
When I started to say ‘no’, the putdowns began. That’s something that at the age of 54 I still struggle with – that I’m not good enough, not worthy enough.
When it was found out that things weren’t actually good at home, I was put into foster care and had to go to boarding school for two years. He stayed.
As soon as I turned 16, I left everything and went from relationship to relationship.
You’d go out drinking and somebody would say nice things to you and you would end up having sex with them.
To me, that’s what you did and I always got surprised when the next day they would leave, or didn’t call, or the relationships were very short.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND HIV/AIDS
Once I started having long-term relationships, there was often an element of violence. I wasn’t beaten up violently every single day, but it happened.
I remember coming home from work – we were living in Tanzania at the time – and driving into the driveway. My partner dragged me out of the car and started beating me up, saying, “Where’ve you been? Why are you home so late?”
I was so severely beaten I stayed home for nearly a week. I was knocked unconscious another time and I’ve still got a scar on my lips.
One time, I told him if it happens again I’d leave, but I didn’t. Afterwards I’d think, “Was it me? Maybe I aggravated it.”
According to UNAIDS (United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) women who encounter violence are three times more inclined to contract HIV.
The link is the women’s low self-esteem and self-worth.
As a result, they put themselves in dangerous situations; like have more sexual partners and be more reckless about who they’re having sexual relationships with.
Of course, you have to have a sexual relationship with an HIV-positive person to get HIV but the more people you sleep with, the higher the chances are of contracting it, and some women might also be involved with people who engage in high risk behaviours.
For most women who suffer from sexual, physical or verbal violence, to get out of that is very hard. Your self-esteem is so low. You think nobody is going to want you and often that’s what the partner is telling you.
Often, people pull themselves up for their children. I came back to New Zealand with my son after my last relationship because I didn’t want him to see that.
TACKLING VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
I hadn’t been in a relationship for 18 years. I don’t consider myself a victim. I’ve definitely worked through stuff and I’m a strong woman but I stay strong because I’m not in a relationship.
I don’t feel worthy of love and -- especially with HIV -- it made me doubly insecure.
I was diagnosed in 1990 in Tanzania but I’d been HIV-positive for two years by then. I got a phone call from a very good friend who said an ex-partner had died. I had a test. It came out of the blue.
My diagnosis was, "You've got AIDS and you have three years to live.” There was no support network and huge stigma.
My son was six and I thought, "I won’t see him turn 10."
The first night after I’d been diagnosed, I remember waking up 50 or 60 times. I’d just bolt upright in a shock. I thought I was going to die in my sleep. My partner said, “You look different today than you were yesterday.”
I said, “Yes I am. Yesterday I had the possibility of a lifetime; today I’ve got three years.’
It was much easier after we moved to England because there were counselling and support networks.
But I was always the only woman, it was mainly gay men. I didn't mind but it made me feel even more that there’s something's wrong with me, that I must be a really bad person.
I came back to New Zealand to die. It was about making sure my son had support. Then I waited a year, and another year, and slowly medications change and now I just worry about getting old and wrinkly.
It does need to be a dual effort to tackle violence against women. If you empower women but not men, men are going to be more violent because they’d try to push the women down again. So it’s really important to start at school age around self-worth and boys and girls respecting each other.
There’s no silver bullet but there are things that can be done. We just need to keep doing it. No woman deserves to be hit.