Violence against women is one of the key drivers of HIV infection in Zimbabwe, states a report titled "HIV/AIDS and Violence Against Women: Priorities for intervention in Zimbabwe."
According to the report, in Zimbabwe, women are 1.35 times more likely to be HIV infected than men. In the 20-24 year old age group, infection rates among young women are three times higher than those of men.
"Reasons for the higher infection rates among women than men of their age vary and include earlier initiation into sex, often with men much older than themselves, while for most young women their first sexual encounter is often forced, which exposes them to higher risk of contracting HIV," says the report.
Violent sex which is rampant in the country also predisposes women – especially young girls – to HIV infection. "In forced vaginal penetration abrasions and cuts commonly occur, thus facilitating entry of the virus when it is present through vaginal mucosa," the report states. "Adolescent girls are particularly susceptible, because their vaginal mucous membrane has not yet acquired the cellular density providing an effective barrier that develops in the latter teenage years."
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Deep rooted and pervasive gender inequalities are also a key factor that increases the vulnerability of women and girls to HIV infection. The power imbalances that exist between men and women in the country force the women to occupy a subordinate status even when it comes to intimate partner relationships.
According to the report, research studies have revealed that both men and women view sexual violence in intimate relationships as an acceptable way for men to punish women for perceived disobedience, not performing household tasks, or refusing sex.
"Violence against women is worsened by cultural norms that make women accept violence as an inevitable consequence of their marital relationships," states the report.
In many cases, women find it acceptable to be beaten by their husband as a form of punishment. Also, a woman could never refuse to have sex with her husband, even if he was violent, unfaithful, or infected with HIV. A woman in Zimbabwe quoted in the report said: "AIDS is a parcel that my husband brings from town and I should expect."
"Events that trigger violence against women in abusive relationships are remarkably consistent the world over. They include alleged disobeying or arguing with a male partner; questioning him about money or girlfriends; not having food ready on time: not caring for the children or home; refusing to have sex; and suspecting a woman of infidelity," states the report.
The poor economic conditions prevailing in Zimbabwe, and the worsening poverty levels have put immense pressure on households, and women usually women suffer more than their female counterparts.
"Through desperation, many young women are have turned to transactional sex, mostly with older men to pay for basics such as school fees and food," says the report. "But perhaps more worrying, increasing poverty has put a severe stress on traditional social safety nets, including weakening the capacity of the extended family to care for orphans."
Consequently, there has been an exponential increase in child-headed households due to the extended family system's inability to cope with the orphan crisis. Children, particularly young girls, face the risk of sexual abuse, as they struggle to make a livelihood.
To address the vulnerability of women in Zimbabwe, as in many parts of Africa, requires an overhaul of ideologies and legal systems that promote the subjugation of women in society. Traditional beliefs and practices that put women in sub-Saharan Africa at the risk of both violence and HIV infection need to be repealed, and this necessarily involves working with the traditional leaders that in many cases are reluctant to see that happen.
The legal and public health systems and the overall policy frameworks must become highly responsive to the special and legitimate requirements of women and girls.
But more importantly, programs that encourage men to be better partners, fathers and brothers that shun the use of violence against women need to be an integral component of each and every HIV and AIDS intervention.