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There is no denying a link between violence against women and HIV infection. And, in some countries where up to 70% of women experience gender-based violence, addressing HIV without considering dimensions of violence is woefully inadequate.
Women who experience violence are at greater risk of HIV infection, due to violent sexual encounters and a lack of sexual autonomy and power. Globally 50% of people living with HIV are women. But in areas of high gender-based violence – like parts of Africa – upward of 60% of people living with HIV are female.
Programmes and initiatives to reduce gender-based violence must be implemented in conjunction with HIV-prevention programmes in order to help vulnerable women stay safe and healthy.
One tool that recognises the relationship between violence against women and HIV is the SASA! approach, developed by Raising Voices in Uganda to prevent violence against women and reduce HIV.
SASA, the Kiswahili word for ‘now’, is also an acronym for the four stages of the programme: start, awareness, support, action.
While the common belief is that stopping gender-based violence will take years, or decades, as it requires a change in cultural norms and acceptability, SASA! sets out to prove that change can happen more quickly.
Changing power relations
SASA! encourages people to examine power relations in their own lives. Straying from the typical violence-against-women jargon, which often shames perpetrators, SASA! works by having community members think about the benefits of balancing power within relationships through various outreach activities that can be tailored to specific contexts.
Run by volunteer community activists – the backbone of the programme – SASA! is now being employed by non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies in 45 countries across four continents.
This systematic change approach has been welcomed in many societies and shows promising results.
A three-year trial to examine the effectiveness of the SASA! approach was developed in Kampala, Uganda, by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Makerere University, and implementing partner the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention. The results, which are currently being finalised and are due to be released shortly, appear promising, indicating that violence against women is preventable, and in a much shorter timeframe than many previously anticipated.
Though any amount of time is still too long when it comes to seeing change, it is encouraging that great strides can be made much more quickly than previously thought, by having communities recognise the benefits of a more equitable society.
With a little innovation and some passionate work by dedicated activists, it is possible to prevent violence against women while also reducing women’s vulnerability to HIV.
Brynne Gilmore is a member of Key Correspondents, a network of citizen journalists focusing on marginalised groups most at risk of HIV and people living with HIV, to report the health and human rights stories that matter to them. The network is supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.