World AIDS Day, held every year on 1 December since 1988, is an opportunity to note that worldwide an estimated 35 million people are living with HIV and that about 39 million people have died from the virus, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region worst-affected by HIV/AIDS and there are over 6 million South Africans living with HIV. Our epidemic, because it is so large, is a unique opportunity to reflect on gender and HIV.
The most obvious starting point is that women are often more vulnerable to HIV than men, for both physiological and sociological reasons, and many of these are young women. With our annual focus on gender based violence in full swing, it may be a useful moment to reflect that gender inequality is often what drives this violence, and HIV vulnerability, in the context of an inadequate criminal justice system. If you add patriarchy, and destructive forms of masculinity, into this script, then anyone who challenges masculine privilege, including gender non-conforming men and women (including lesbian and trans women and gay men) is also vulnerable.
But it would be useful to acknowledge that narrow gender scripts are bad for men too – especially men who feel a need to act out forms of heterosexual masculinity which require them to be sexually voracious and experienced, and “strong“ enough to avoid acknowledging vulnerability and any form of health-related help.
In a sense, men too are victims, as societal requirements to “man up“ trap them in behaviour which is both personally and socially unfulfilling, and often risky for HIV. Some of the unhelpful rhetoric in South Africa around gender based violence, for example asking men to “protect“ women and children, may increase pressure on men to be “in charge“ of gender violence initiatives and change, and infantilises and disempowers women, ignoring the deeper economic, political and social roots of gender inequality.
As GR@UP we call upon all South Africans to reflect on what gender means and how the gender “system“ could be challenged, and even dismantled. This could not only have a positive effect on the dignity and opportunities of all men and women (and those who choose not to conform to, or do not easily fall into, this binary) of all sexualities but could start a conversation about humanness beyond gender, and about identity beyond labels.
Such a conversation also creates space for views of HIV and AIDS which go beyond despair and hopelessness, but which speak to ideas of transformation, diversity and inclusivity, and new forms of sexual and health citizenship.