Gender Roles Determine Societal Attitudes to HIV

Women: facing a disproportionately high risk?
While such attitudes increase the risk of HIV infection for both men and women, they do so disproportionately for women. Few women have the social space or sanction to develop a sense of self - an 'I'. But a lack of self usually means that women are unlikely to take cognizance of 'themselves' at risk. Protecting the husband, of course. The daughter, yes. But protecting the self is just not a concern, let alone a priority.

Gender roles determine societal attitudes to HIV-positive men and women

Single man (+ve)
-He is let off with a 'boys will be boys look'
-He may marry without revealing HIV status

Single woman (+ve)
-She is labelled a slut
-She is not expected to get married

Client(MAN) (+ve)
-He is never blamed for spreading HIV, even though it is biologically easier for him to do so.

Sex worker(WOMAN) (+ve)
-She is blamed for spreading the epidemic

Husband (-ve)
-He is encouraged to remarry
-He is not expected to look after her(wife)
-His sexual needs are acknowledged

Wife (+ve)
-She is suspected of infidelity
-She may face violence or desertion
-She is expected to perform household tasks
-Her sexual needs are neglected
-Her treatment is not guaranteed

Husband (+ve)
-He becomes financially dependant on his wife
-He (typically) won't tell her how he got HIV
-His sexual behaviour may not change
Wife (-ve)-She becomes breadwinner
-She does 'triple duty' - home care, work
-She wants to know how he got it, but can't ask
-Her sexual needs are not acknowledged

Even when women are persuaded that they are at risk of HIV, it is difficult for them to initiate preventitive action. An overall power imbalance between men and women means that women are unable to question men about wexual behavious, initiate a dialogue of any kind within a relationship, or assert their preferences. While men are more likely than women to initiate and control sexual interactions and decision-making, the emphasis on male sexual pleasure also acts as a barrier to sager sex negotiation by women.

Husband (+ve)
-He is usually favoured for treatment & care
Wife (+ve)
-Her care & treatment are neglected

Pregnant wife (+ve)
-She is expected to put her unborn child's welfare above her own needs
-She is either denied an abortion or coerced into it - the choice may not be hers
-She is given medical treatment that often compromises her health and needs
-She is blamed as an irresponsible mother-to-be

Widower (+ve)
-His family may not desert him
-He retains his property
-He is rarely blamed for his wife's death

Widow (+ve)
-She may be abandoned by in-laws
-Her natal family may not accept her
-She may be forced to support herself & her children
-Her property may be unsurped
-She may be stigmatized and blamed for his death

Gender : distributing the HIV burden unequally
If women face a disproportionately high risk due to their social status, women also face a greater share of the HIV burden. All women - single, married , pregnant, widowed or in prostitution - face the whiplash of gender when it comes to HIV. A single woman who gets HIV, for instance, will immediately be labelled a slut, while a single man who is infected will escape societal disapproval with a 'boys will be boys' nod and wink. Similarly, a sex worker will be blamed for spreading infection - not her client, who is anatomically more capable of spreading HIV more widely.

In the same way, married women face many dilemmas on getting infected. To have a child or not? Is a question that assumes monumental overtones, since fertility is a deeply valued personal and social goal that defines the self-worth and social identity of a woman. Married women whose husbands are also infected must often walk the tightrope between balancing their own needs versus those of their partners, while uninfected women with infected partners suddenly find themselves balancing old and new roles of caregiver and breadwinner.

In this, and other ways, HIV/AIDS remains yet another arena where traditional gender struggles continue to be played out at all structural levels - in the family, in the community, and in society at large.

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