“Our campaign is called ‘Women Won’t Wait’and it looks at how violence against women and HIV infection intersect,” explains Neelanjana. “Research has shown that HIV positive women are at a greater risk of violence and rights violations.”
Women are often diagnosed first, through testing at ante-natal clinics and in many countries male partners are automatically notified, without the woman’s consent. Not only is this a violation of her right to confidentiality, it often leads to women being assaulted by family members, thrown out of the house or even losing their children.
It is also more difficult for women who are suffering abuse to adhere to HIV treatment, as they may have to hide their medicine or be unable to go to the clinic to fetch their ARVS.
Neelanjana also points out that HIV positive women are not just abused by their partners but by a range of actors including the state and health systems, as in the recent case of Namibian women being sterilized without their knowledge.
“Those people in charge of the global aids response need to address violence against women as an integral part of their portfolio,” she adds.
The ‘Women Won’t Wait’ campaign has made some strides in ensuring this happens, such as lobbying at the international level to ensure that organizations designing and funding the international aids response take this issue into account. The campaign also works at the local level in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone to ensure that national Aids bodies integrate this into their programmes. It has also worked to ensure there is adequate legislation around issues such as inheritance rights, divorce and prohibition of violence against women.
“The campaign has had some notable successes, such as UNAids paying an increasing amount of attention to women’s rights,” says Neelanjana. “For example, last year they launched a task force and civil society groups were included in writing an operational plan on how countries can integrate women’s rights into their Aids strategies.”
She adds that three of the big international agencies have really moved forward with including the issue into their programmes. “The challenge is what happens at country level once there is change at the international level?” Neelanjana asks. “We don’t know how these plans will be operationalised, how they will be resourced and who will be accountable.”
Bringing the conversation a little closer to home, what does she think of campaigns such as the 16 Days?
“I think the 16 Days campaign has been very successful across the world. The challenge is, of course, that once awareness has been raised how do you sustain the momentum?”
“As an outsider – I come from India – I think the 16 Days campaign in South Africa has lost a bit of focus, because now its not just about violence against women but also children and so on. In a sense, the government here has co-opted the 16 Days campaign, which leads to dilution of the key messages. It should be owned and driven by women’s organizations. The same thing has happened around the world with Women’s Day which has been adopted by big corporations and governments.”
She also points out that in the globalized village, there are very many competing campaigns and messages that it is easy for some of them to get drowned out. There is also competition for a resource as donors change their areas of focus, as has happened recently with funding for HIV.
So where does she see the future of such campaigns?
“Historically, women’s organizations have focused on changing laws and policies. Now we need to pay much more attention to accountability. South Africa is one of the leaders in this regard and is now focusing on issues such as gender responsive budgeting. This is definitely the way to go.”