By Teresa Sullivan, PWN-USA Board of Directors
“We, as women living with HIV, envision a life free from violence, coercion, and discrimination for all people. We, as women living with HIV, demand an end to the many different forms of violence faced by all women, including physical, emotional, psychological, religious, sexual, institutional, and economic violence, and the trauma that violence leaves in its wake.” — From Positive Women’s Network – USA’s Factsheet on Violence Against Women
When we hear the word “violence,” the first thing we visualize is the physical abuse of someone. And women living with HIV are indeed vulnerable to physical violence because of stigma and ignorance – a reality made brutally clear yet again a few weeks ago with the “sickening, devastating and heartbreaking” murder of Elisha Henson in Texas because of her HIV status. However, Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA) views violence through a gender and human-rights lens. For us at PWN-USA, ending violence against women includes ending a spectrum of human rights violations, including but not limited to physical violence, that women have faced for many generations throughout history.
For example, let’s journey for a moment through the 1940s and 1950s in the United States. Many women of this time faced the economic injustice of working for lower wages on factory production lines than the men they replaced who’d gone off to World War II. In doing this work, these women challenged the traditional ideals that a woman’s place was in the home attending to the needs of her husband. But this historic challenge didn’t translate to respect, equality – or physical safety. Within the home, many women not only experienced physical abuse by their husbands — “the physical beat down” — but had to make unhealthy choices to stay in relationships that were abusive, emotionally and otherwise, to keep social status, economic stability or shelter to raise their children. Women often had to depend on their husband’s income for their basic needs, such as food and clothing.
Many women also had no control over when to have sex with their husbands. Women’s reproductive rights — the right to have children, the right not to have children, access to safe abortions — were unheard of in this era. Women’s reproductive rights are human rights; viewed through a gender and human-rights lens, we can see that violation of these rights is a form of violence against women.
The psychological abuse that women faced in the era I described often caused them emotional and psychological trauma. As a woman who grew up in the 1960s, I personally experienced the trauma that was transferred from the women of the 1940s and 1950s to my generation of women of the 1960s and 1970s. Learning and working from that trauma sparked a second wave of the feminist movement. Feminist and other movements continue to be connected to the social justice movement I am part of to this day: the movement to end violence against all women.
In the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, many women transformed from being passive to aggressively fighting for their human rights. The movement originally focused on dismantling workplace inequality, such as denial of access to better jobs, salary inequity, or freedom from sexual harassment. For some, it was just the right to have control over their own bodies. Most of these issues continue to be central to women’s justice movements today.
While the economic structure in the United States blocks opportunities for many people, women still face higher hurdles to jump over to make it in today’s world. When it comes to healthcare for women that are working or seeking to gain employment with quality healthcare, useful and widely available options are still rare. Women are likely to be the caregivers of families; their healthcare needs are costly and invisible. Even with the Affordable Care Act, I still see our nation falling short when it comes to upholding the right to quality, affordable, and holistic healthcare for all women. This is a deterrent from entering the workforce, especially when a woman and her family are dealing with health concerns. Women of today’s generation are often incentivized to stay in poverty and stay sick in order to access public health benefits, since the prospect of accessing healthcare and making a livable wage can be bleak.
Experiences across the spectrum of violence against women – from economic to physical and sexual violence and beyond – continue to increase a woman’s susceptibility to becoming HIV positive. In circumstances where women are not able to receive the necessary means to survive and take care of themselves and their families, preventing HIV becomes a matter for an ideal world.
If our society truly wants to end violence against all women, we must discontinue putting a Band-Aid on the issues that women face — and do some sincere surgery on our culture.
Some of PWN-USA’s solutions and recommendations for ending violence against all women:
- Repeal all laws that criminalize HIV and provide sensitivity trainings to law enforcement officials, providers, health care workers, violence specialists, and child protection services.
- Institute comprehensive trauma-informed primary care programs in sites serving women and HIV-positive women.
- Build care providers’ skills to assess and address signs of violence and trauma.
Teresa Sullivan is a member of PWN-USA-Philadelphia and a member of PWN-USA’s Board of Directors.