Getting ahead of AIDS
Protecting women, mothers and babies from HIV
Historically, there has been a tendency to view the “Mother” in PMTCT as simply a vehicle for producing a healthy baby, with efforts directed mainly at providing anti-retroviral therapy (ARV) to pregnant and lactating women in order to prevent HIV transmission to the child.
We can, however, get ahead of the AIDS epidemic and save millions upon millions of lives more effectively if we do a better job preventing HIV among women and girls in the first place.
1. Empower women and girls
Women and girls need to know what their rights are and how to obtain them. Educating women and girls on their rights, training judges and law enforcement to uphold and enforce protective laws, and deploying community legal workers to help women and girls navigate the legal system are important strategies for upholding the rights of women and girls.
Women who know their rights and are empowered will likely be more confident to negotiate sex or safer sexual practices with an HIV-positive partner (who may or may not know his HIV status).
2. Create an enabling environment
The creation of an enabling environment free of harmful unequal gender norms, societal structures and cultural attitudes is central to the wellbeing of women and girls. Women and girls who can apply their empowerment, who are secure and economically self-sufficient are far less vulnerable to HIV.
We also need to get laws passed and enforced everywhere that make domestic abuse illegal, that treat rape and other gender-based violence as a real crime to be punished harshly and that protect girls from early marriage.
3. Provide prevention education and services
Reproductive health education and services are important to teach women and girls about HIV prevention, alert them to the dual benefits the condom offers to women who want to control the number of children they have and protect themselves from HIV infection. Condoms, if used consistently and correctly, are highly effective at preventing HIV infection.
However, protecting women from HIV is not solely women's responsibility. Most women with HIV were infected by unprotected sex with an infected man. Preventing transmission is the responsibility of both partners, and men must play an equal role in this.
4. Challenge stigma and discrimination
As women, mothers face the same vulnerabilities and discrimination faced by women worldwide, and programs which target pregnant women for PMTCT should address these issues and focus on the health of both the woman and her child.
Only if women are treated with respect and given the support they need, will they seek the counseling, treatment and be likely to come back for the delivery of their baby, which is the critical time for preventing HIV transmission.
Whether man or woman, we each have a role to play in protecting ourselves and loved ones from HIV infection. Together, we must also be bold by challenging inequality whenever and wherever it appears and ensuring that women and girls are valued and respected — as we strive for an AIDS-free generation.
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