Looking back on 2017: Women's rights

By Christine Stegling

Christine Stegling is the executive director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

In 2017, women’s rights were at the forefront of the media and the collective mind. From the signing of the Mexico City Policy (aka the Global Gag rule) in January, to the sexual harassment allegations coming out of Hollywood and Westminster, women from all over the globe came together to speak out for their right to bodily autonomy, freedom from sexual harassment and assault, and the right to make their own choices.

<p>Fatuma Muriuki, 20, from Malindi, Kenya</p>
<p>"I would never have understood the reason why some women endure humiliation and violence from men in exchange for financial support until I got my own child.</p>
<p>"She is the greatest treasure I have ever had, although accepting her father&rsquo;s sexual advances was the mistake of my life.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I was a bright girl in school and would have completed high school if I had not got myself into drug use.&nbsp;</p>
<p>"I have been a sex worker, braving physical and verbal abuse from clients who don&rsquo;t want to pay for the services, just to ensure my child has food. Sometimes I am also roughed up and threatened with rape by defiant clients. I bear all this with hopes that tomorrow will be better.&rdquo;</p>Fatuma Muriuki, 20, from Malindi, Kenya with her daughter. © Corrie Wingate for the Alliance 2017

While these issues played out on the world stage, there is a quieter, more nuanced set of issues lying beneath the surface. Around 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. And what was not discussed so prominently, is that women who have experienced violence are up to three times more likely to be infected with HIV than those who have not.

These statistics highlight an issue which many of us are fighting for right now; that there is a glaring need for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) support for women globally; and that there is not enough accessible support for women and girls who are at risk of gender-based violence and its effects. The signing of the Mexico City Policy – which prevents organisations receiving US funding to provide or advocate for abortion services – only exacerbated the issue and pushed what SRHR support there is further underground. Such restrictions in funding for women’s comprehensive sexual health services increase the risks that women face due to the lack of, and inaccessibility of, services for them.

Consider the horrific statistics: globally, of new HIV infections among young people aged 10–24 years, 65% are among adolescent girls and young women. HIV infection rates in adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa are twice as high as in boys of the same age. In 2015, nearly 390,000 adolescent girls and young women aged 10–24 became newly infected with HIV, the vast majority of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. 

We have a choice: the world can continue to ignore the devastating impact that gender inequality has in fuelling the HIV epidemic, meaning that young women who experience sexual violence will be 50% more likely to acquire HIV than young women who do not experience violence.

Or we do something about it NOW to stop preventable catastrophes impinging on so many young women's lives.

It's not like we're not mandated to act - we are! The Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality provides a mandate and significant opportunity to ensure adolescent girls and young women have access to SRHR services – no matter where they are in the world – and are free from gender-based discrimination and violence.

We are many, trying to fight for a safer world and better access to services for women and adolescent girls. As a champion of the SheDecides movement, a global movement to promote, provide, protect and enhance the fundamental rights of every girl and woman, the READY to Decide campaign that was launched by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance on World AIDS Day 2017 sits very close to my heart.

A way forward must ensure that the needs of adolescent girls and young women in all their diversity are met, by providing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, which are fully integrated with HIV services. 

But in parallel, we need to work towards a shift in the culture of male dominance that is so prevalent globally, that creates the silent spaces around the issue of violence and the risk of HIV infection.

We have to proactively open up pathways for young women, and men, to tell the world how it can better serve them and their communities. We need to provide opportunities for young people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, to tell us what their friends, families, communities and governments can do to stop gender-based violence against adolescent girls and young women. 

I firmly believe that where crises exist there exist opportunities, and just as importantly that crises are not happening in a vacuum.

Now, in 2018 we will be ensuring that the fight for women's rights continues. SheDecides provides an exciting space for women and girls to take action, and READY to Decide opened that space wider to incorporate and support the voices of those facing the often silent, but very real threat, of HIV.

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