By Dalya Israel
During these 16 days of Activism, I’m thinking about the fact that other important days are being commemorated as well.
Today is World AIDS Day, a day that perhaps many of us have not traditionally associated with women but I think it’s time we did.
As someone who has grown up in Canada, I know that the vast majority of us have been socialized to think of HIV and AIDS as a “gay man’s issue”, or an “IV drug users” issue or more simply “an African issue.” So many of us have felt exonerated by racism, homophobia, and classism to not have to actually conceptualize what HIV/AIDS looks like for women here in Canada.
I want us to challange ourselves with these notions. I want us to get rid of the notion that it’s “those people” over there that have to think about HIV/AIDS. Particularly in the current political climate that we are living in here in Canada, it is time for connections to be made between the HIV/AIDS movement and the anti-violence movement. The very same sexism, racism, transphobia, economic status, societal inequality, vulnerability and marginalization that puts women at risk for gender based violence also puts women at risk of becoming HIV positive, of dealing with HIV stigma/hatred, and of potentially being prosecuted for the non-disclosure of HIV status.
The reality is that women are more suseptible to being infected with HIV just due to the biological make-up of our bodies. In Canada, women now account for both a significantly larger number and proportion of people living with HIV and AIDS relative to the beginning of the epidemic. Heterosexual contact is now considered a risk category for women. Somehow we haven’t caught-up to this reality in our minds and systemic policies reflect this.
As a frontline worker, having done hospital accompaniments with women to get care after sexual assault over the past 8 years, I have witnessed many women very much afraid of the potential of being exposed to HIV thru the sexual assault that happened to them. In Canada we are very privileged to have access to HIV post-exposure prophylaxis which can lower our risk after an exposure to HIV. So one would think that after a sexual assault, if you had significant concern about being exposed to HIV by the person that sexually assault you, that you should have access to those preventative medications. The reality is that it’s not that simple. Most of the programs across Canada that provide post sexual assault care are still using outdated notions of who is HIV positive in Canada. Women are asked, in most of Canada, to discuss the health status of the person that sexually assaulted them in order to have access to these preventative medications. This doesn’t seem ‘just’ to me. Sexual assault itself should be seen as a risk factor in being exposed, particularly in the rape culture that we find ourselves living in. How this moves us closer to “Getting to zero” i’m not sure.
For me HIV/AIDS has always been a complex issue that needed to be dealt with in both social movements and in health promotion, but I never thought I’d see the day where the Criminal Justice System became part of the equation. This was something I had to start thinking about maybe 5 years ago when our Vicitm Service program needed to begin to conceptualize that non-disclosure of HIV cases were being prosecuted as Level 3 Aggrevated Sexual Assaults before the court in Canada. This was the first time I had to think about this. The first thing I noticed was the women we support on a regular basis tend to never see their cases of sexual assault before the court at all and yet the cases of non-disclosure that were being brought before the courts as aggrevated sexual assaults seemed to have an extremely high conviction rate. This was so disturbing to me; here we are conflating rape with non-disclosure. This didn’t and still doesn’t make sense to me.
Then I began to think about the implications of women being prosecuted for “sex crimes.” To date, 14 women have been charged criminally for non-disclosure of their HIV status. These women are now seen as “sex offenders” in our system. So the very laws, pre-ambles and statues that were intended on protecting women who had experienced sexualized violence are now being used against them in a completely inappropriate use of the law. Combine that with the reality that women having to negotiate their own sexuality in this rape culture is already not an easy task… Imagine if in addition a woman has to negotiate HIV stigma/hatred and then has to prove somehow that she has taken the appropriate steps to do so. Add to this combination all the sexism, racism, transphobia, economic status, societal inequality, vulnerability and marginalization that I mentioned earlier, and the reality is that once again women living with HIV are being put in an incredibly terrifying situation.
Positive Women’s Network is the only women-centered HIV/AIDS organization in BC and perhaps most of Canada. We can’t live in silos anymore, we have to see the connection between the HIV/AIDS movement and the feminist anti-violence movement. We have to hold our sisters at the centre of the ways in which we think through these complex issues. We can’t let hatred and oppression keep us blind anymore.