Acting on HIV and gender violence all year

Date: January 1, 1970
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The ages of sixteen and eighteen are widely believed to symbolise emerging maturity and wisdom. This year, 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence and World AIDS Day (WAD) respectively achieve these milestone anniversaries.

Often, in the fervour of commemorating such events, promises for the year ahead drown out resolutions made over the preceding year. It is important to remind ourselves that our activism and advocacy needs to be consistent and relevant throughout the year.
In 2006, the Domestic Violence Bill was gazetted in Zimbabwe’s Parliament, while national statistics revealed a drop in Zimbabwe’s HIV prevalence rate, from just over 20% to 18.1%. Recent reports indicate that Zimbabweans have the worlds highest condom use, suggesting that a high level of sexual activity need not go hand in hand with an increased HIV epidemic.
At the same time, the government, with support from the United Nations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), has devised a strategy to fight HIV and AIDS in the agricultural sector.  The proposed five-year plan also seeks to address the issue of stigma against people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA), as well as fight gender inequality and domestic violence.
However, amid this progress, there are setbacks. Recent statistics show that 60% of murder cases heard in courts are attributable to domestic violence. Universal treatment access has proved to be an enormous challenge – many Zimbabweans remain on long waiting lists to access free antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) through government-funded programmes.
Currently, only about 42,000 of the over 300, 000 Zimbabweans in need of ARVs are able to access them, while the local manufacturers of the cheaper generic drugs are unable to produce due to the nation’s critical lack of foreign currency.
The Domestic Violence Bill is no magic elixir to all the problems of violence in the country. In fact, domestic violence is a component of the wider issue of gender-based violence (GBV). Gender-based violence, by definition, encompasses sexual harm such as rape and forced prostitution, verbal abuse, physical harm and other forms of violence, which include stalking and neglect.
Currently, domestic violence is a common law offence, which has tended to limit the scope and severity of how society views domestic violence. Existing laws do not tackle many aspects of the problem, such as economic, emotional, verbal and psychological abuse.
The Domestic Violence Bill created a flurry of debates in the run-up to the 16 Days period. Professionals and the wider public wrote many articles, airing conflicting views. These forms of exchange and debate are critical as this Bill, when passed into law, will affect and challenge many of the issues commonly thought to be private.
Timothy Mubhawu’s now infamous proclamations that women are not equal to men further intensified debate in the mass media. This discussion should continue throughout the16 Days period and World AIDS Day, for the link between GBV and HIV and AIDS is inescapable.
Almost 60% of all people living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa are women and adolescent girls, and this is largely due to gender inequity and violence. GBV puts women in danger of HIV infection when they are unable to negotiate safer sex for fear of GBV, or face GBV through rape and coerced sex with an HIV positive partner.
Activism around these issues should be inclusive and participatory, involving all sectors of society and communities, providing accurate and consistent information and advocacy messages. We are all at risk of GBV – women and men and children.
As such, campaigns must include men as partners. Peer pressure is an important factor in much of men’s negative behaviour towards women and is equally relevant in motivating behaviour change for the better.
While the national HIV prevalence rate is declining, it still remains one of the highest in the world. Efforts to curb this epidemic demand the commitment of every person, day after day, every day, and not just at special summits or events such as World AIDS Day.
One social commentator recently bemoaned the state of media advocacy, noting that far too many media institutions believe a supplement around World AIDS Day, or similar token gestures, represent an epic effort in fighting the epidemic.  
This highlights the media’s inadequate response to HIV and AIDS, but most other institutions fall equally short of appropriately addressing the issues. Activism and advocacy have to take place at all levels at all times – within all legal, political, social and economic institutions and their accompanying spheres.
A recent cartoon in a South African newspaper graphically illustrated how legislative frameworks are just that – frameworks. In a parody of the children’s tale about the three little pigs and the “big bad wolf”, the cartoon shows the pigs cowering in a house made of papers, which are actually all the South African Acts and charters that protect women’s rights.
A message reads, “Ongoing Male Violence” across the wolf’s chest, and he is lurking behind a tree saying ironically, “How daunting! A house of paper!” As many who know the story will recall, the little pigs use weak materials to build their homes, which the big bad wolf has no problem in huffing and puffing and blowing down.
This piece of satire drives home an important point – a house made of papers, bills, Acts, charters and declarations is not enough to withstand the gusts of criticism and the whole edifice of male dominance, in which so many vested interests lie.
Advocacy built on words without actions and implementation plans is just as weak.  World AIDS Day and 16 Days should be built upon all year round and not just on the days set aside to commemorate them. Each year, our house should get stronger and safer, with bricks and mortar added to the important paper frameworks that guide our foundations.
(Fungai Machirori is a trainee media professional with the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS). This is part of a series of articles produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.)

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