According to the UNAIDS “Prevention Gap Report” (2016), gender inequalities that result in gender- based and intimate partner- based violence increase women and girls’ physiological vulnerability to HIV and their ability to access HIV services. Having worked in the HIV space for 20 years, HIVSA has primarily focussed on the psychosocial and economic factors contributing to HIV infections in South Africa specifically among vulnerable populations such as Adolescent Girls and Young Women.
Current interventions to reduce HIV infections among girls and young women target this very group with layered evidence- based interventions, psychosocial support and health referrals and material support. While these interventions go a long way in empowering and equipping girls and young women with the information and tools, they need to make informed and responsible choices, HIVSA wonders if we are not setting girls up for failure when expecting them to make different and empowering choices within a society that has remained unchanged? Patriarchy, intimate partner violence, inequitable laws and harmful traditional and cultural practices continue to perpetuate unequal power dynamics between men and women. Is it fair to expect girls and women to not only take care of their own health and well- being but to also change historical social norms and unequal gender practices that have passed through generations? What role do our community leaders, boys and men play in bringing about this change? How do we tap into the wisdom of those that have led the way for years to affect change in the present?
In celebrating its 20th Anniversary, HIVSA hosted a roundtable discussion with the female leaders of some of our community- based partners. There was high tea and there were hats but there was also a formidable and powerful presence of women making a daily difference in the lives of orphans, vulnerable children and young people in their communities. The women mentioned cross cutting themes of poverty, cultural norms, substance abuse, socialisation and unequal power dynamics between men and women but most importantly shared their own experiences of gender- based violence.
Following a robust discussion there was a collective commitment to addressing prevailing societal barriers to gender equality using a community engagement approach. There was an acknowledgment that men, traditional leaders and religious institutions are powerful gatekeepers and need to be actively engaged to jointly finding solutions. There was a call for more involvement of donors and corporate South Africa and an insistence that boys and young men including members of the LGBTQI+ community be brought along and included in gender equality programmes.