Throughout her education, Thoko Phiri, a 35-year-old mother of two from Ntchisi District, had an ambition of pursuing a degree in business administration.
A holder of a diploma in business administration from the University of Malawi (Unima), Thoko did, however, not make it to the job market. Now divorced, she recalls how she easily accepted to remain a housewife and never further her education when she met Mavuto, the father of her two children.
“Mavuto proved to be loving and caring in our dating days and through our early marriage. I did not hesitate, then, to suspend my career and remain a house wife when he asked me to do so since he had a good job that took care of all our family needs,” she explains.
While the 2004 UNFPA State of World Population report states that married girls are less likely than others to finish their education, the report also gives a tedious picture that such girls are more likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Meanwhile, as Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were agreed upon by heads of State in September 2000 targeted at getting more girls into class to achieve the goal of gender equality have paved the way to Sustainable Development Goals which were recently agreed upon, a 2004 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report on HIV and Aids indicates that many women in Africa are not considered to be part of the labour force, yet they grow food, run homes and care for children.
Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati says cultural barriers deny women their socio-economic rights and exposes them to the risk of HIV infection.
Founder of the Graca Machel trust, wife to former South African President Nelson Mandela, Mama Graca Machel shares the same opinion. Speaking at a Civil Society Nutrition Alliance (Csona) meeting in Lilongwe, she said: “It is very important that women’s working and economic rights have to be protected if we have to pull our girls and young women out of the HIV and Aids trap and achieve the goal to better nutrition for our infants in the first 1 000 days”.
With UNAids statistics indicating that around 60 percent of adults living with HIV are women, the data gives a austere depiction that 75 percent of the people living with HIV are young women and girls.
The simple explanation for this scenario, according to the ILO assessment, is that universally cases of women discrimination are higher in rural parts of southern Africa.
While an ILO survey conducted in Tanzania indicated that 19 percent of women employed in the informal sector reported to have at one point suffered harassment, a similar study conducted in Zimbabwe revealed that women that are involved in seasonal work are usually sexually abused.
Although it is a fact that the benefits of educating the girl child is of much importance to the whole community, girls’ right to education is often denied in many parts of southern Africa as it is believed that the welfare of a young lady will be taken care of by her husband.
George Kampango, programme officer responsible for research and advocacy at the Malawi Network of People Living with HIV (Manet+) says that while two of the MDGs were specifically geared at improving the welfare of women, it is clear that the goal of gender equality and women empowerment has not been met in many countries in southern Africa if one considers the highly unacceptable HIV and Aids rate among women and girls.
With statistics indicating that 70 percent of the world’s poor are women, a study by the New Nationalist over a 20-year period from 1970 to 1990 indicated that the number of rural women living in poverty had increased by 50 percent reaching 565 million while that of men had increased by 30 percent. Interestingly, however, an analysis of the Human Poverty Index (HPI-1)—used by the UNDP specifically for 95 developing countries in the measurement of deprivations in the three basic dimensions captured in the Human Development Index (HDI), including a long and healthy life, knowledge and decent standard of living—shows that the situation has not changed over the past 25 years.
While unequal power dynamics in workplaces are usually symbolised by the notion that women’s main role in reproduction which includes childbearing and taking care for children and family, the UNDP assesses that stigma and discrimination towards women puts them at more risk of HIV infection.
Moreover, while women workplace rights are promoted by regional and international treaties, women that are sexually abused at work fail to come in the open and as a result they fail to access Post Exposure Potherasis (PEP) resulting in HIV infection whose circle is furthered as such women cannot discuss their HIV status for fear of being discriminated.
Lillian Saka Kiefer, director at Panos Southern Africa, agrees with the notion that while the HIV and Aids pandemic destroys the livelihood of millions of people worldwide, the situation is worse in regions and countries where poverty is extensive and gender inequality is persistent.
With the UNDP indicating that 10 of the overall 16 southern Africa countries were low income, with Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of $732 or less in 2002, the magnitude of the present pandemic and its potential multi-dimensional impact in the future is extremely difficult if not impossible to truly comprehend.
Meanwhile, while the UNAids estimates that the proportion of people living in poverty has declined in sub-Saharan Africa in the past 20 years from 50 percent to 33 percent, the study reveals that while HIV prevalence fell most steeply from 2010, the total number of adults that are projected to be living with HIV in 2025 will be 23.9 million, which is as high as 2004 figures which stood at 24.1 million.
According to the UNAids projections, women will still be adversely affected by the epidemic with estimates indicating that 1.4 million women will be infected per year as opposed to 1.2 million men per year.n