Gender gap a barrier to ?Know Your Status? Campaign

Date: January 1, 1970
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While Lesotho?s ?Know Your Status Campaign? is a notable attempt to break through the silence that has shaped how the country addresses the AIDS pandemic, the campaign needs to be bolstered by initiatives to tackle the gender inequalities that continue to be among the main drivers of the pandemic in this tiny mountain kingdom.

Many women, who are politically, economically and socially subordinate to men through customary law and cultural practices, fear going for testing without their husband’s consent, and women and girls cannot negotiate safer sex given the unequal power relations between women and men.
Lesotho’s recent Demographic Health Survey has indicated that knowledge about HIV transmission and ways to prevent it are useless if women and girls are powerless to negotiate safer sex practices with their partners.
According to the survey, 82% of women and 71% of men between the ages of 15 to 49 indicated that a woman is justified in refusing to have sex with her husband if she knows he has an STI, while 91% of women and 82% of men believe that a woman is justified in asking her husband to use a condom if he has an STI.
But the gap between knowledge, beliefs and practice are still wide. Knowing their status can put women and girls at risk of gender violence from their partners if they reveal that they are HIV positive. And, if they are economically disadvantaged, knowing their status does not change their inability to access nutritious food, health care services and long-term treatment.
HIV/AIDS campaigns in the country therefore need to be aligned more closely with policies, programmes and strategies to bring about greater gender equality, and gender equality should be a clear goal of HIV/AIDS policies, programmes and actions if the country is to break through the gender barriers that continue to increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to infection and lessen their chances of acting on any form of knowledge to prevent HIV infection or care for themselves once they know their status.
Increasingly, for example, young girls are dropping out of secondary schools, although secondary school enrolment in the country is higher among girls (36%) than boys (30%). Recent statistics show that the AIDS pandemic and poverty are responsible for a 25% drop in female enrolment over the last decade, with orphans dropping out at an even higher rate. These girls may end up in relationships with older men, on the streets where they are prone to trafficking and/or they may engage in risky behaviour to take care of their siblings. All of which increase their vulnerability to HIV.
Men of all ages, on the other hand, also continue to buy-into the myth that masculinity is shaped by one’s ability to have multiple partners. The Demographic Health Survey data, collected in 2004, showed that 29% of the men between the ages of 15-59 reported having had two or more sexual partners in the 12 months preceding the survey and 60% of the men compared to 36% of the women reported having had higher-risk sexual intercourse.
These are some of the unseen barriers to the effectiveness of the ‘Know Your Status’ campaign. For many women and girls in this Southern African country, they do know their status – they are not equal to men – and this is what keeps them at risk.
Thabang Matjama is information officer at MISA Lesotho and a member of GEMSA Lesotho. This article is part of a special series of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service produced ahead of the SADC Heads of State summit in Lesotho from 17-18 August by the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance comprising ten NGOs that promote gender equality in the region.

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