December 1st, 2011 WORLD AIDS AWARENESS DAY Written by Sheila Kerr on behalf of the Living Positve Resource Centre for the 16 Days of Action of Violence Against Women

Each year on December 1st, World AIDS Day is acknowledged across the globe. At the end of 2010 it was estimated that there are 34 million people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and that half that number are women.

The HIV epidemic has impacted women in a unique way since its beginning, with factors including misconceptions about transmission risks, the stigma that society has placed upon the virus and those living with it, their biological vulnerability to HIV infection, and the varying levels of power women have over choices affecting their sexual health.

HIV knows no gender.  It is transmitted when infected blood, semen, vaginal secretions, anal secretions, or breast milk enter the bloodstream of another person.  This can take place during unprotected sexual contact, even in the absence of sores or abrasions along the genital tract.  Special cells that exist on the cervix of the vagina, in the anus, and on the foreskin and urethra of a man’s penis provide a means for the virus to enter the bloodstream. 

Due to the location of these cells along with other factors, women are twice as likely as men to contract HIV through heterosexual intercourse.  At this time, the only woman-controlled tool for HIV prevention is the female condom, a marvelous creation that has many benefits.

The female condom, worn internally by women, has been around since the 1970s – yet has only recently started gaining popularity as a means of preventing both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  It is made from polyurethane, making it a viable option for individuals with latex allergies, and can be inserted up to 8 hours before sex.  It is comfortable and effective when inserted correctly, and because it extends to the area surrounding the outside of the vagina, it provides added protection against viruses such as herpes and HPV, which male condoms only provide limited protection against. 

Along with additional protection benefits, the female condom also provides additional pleasure benefits for both partners.  Many males report that, because the female condom warms to the lining of the vaginal wall instead of directly covering the penis, they feel the sensation of moving against a skin-like substance.  Some say that it doesn’t feel like a condom is being used at all.  Women report the outer-ring of the female condom providing extra stimulation to the clitoris, making sex more pleasurable.

There are many things that need to be done in order to reduce the burden of HIV among women. These include promoting and protecting women’s human rights, increasing education and awareness among both women and men, and encouraging the development of new preventative technologies that empower women to protect themselves. 

Both men and women are affected by gender roles that attempt to define what it means to be a man or a woman. These gender-based expectations can increase vulnerability to HIV infection. In many societies women are expected to be innocent and submissive when it comes to sex, which may prevent them from utilising prevention methods or accessing sexual health information and services. 

In some cases, women are forced into roles which deny them choice and power over their sexual health.  This inequality and denial of power is an act of violence that can carry devastating consequences.  Often when women in this situation do test positive for infections including HIV, they face the choice of living silently with the virus or being subject to blame, shame, and the risk of further violence.  Recognising and challenging harmful gender roles and gender inequalities is crucial to preventing the spread of HIV.

Living Positive Resource Centre is the HIV/AIDS service organisation for the Central Okanagan, serving individuals living with or at risk for HIV and other health impacts.  They provide free materials to reduce risks, including female condoms, as well as information and support services.  Living Positive is open Monday through Friday at 168 Asher Rd. in Kelowna, and can be reached by phone during those hours at 778-753-5830.