Mercy put her arm through mine. It was a sunny, but cold, April morning. Manicured walkways wind their way through the landscaped gardens on the Embankment. We chatted and giggled. Neatly arranged shrubs were bursting into glorious flower. The London Eye was just visible beyond the trees at the perimeter of the park. Mercy moved to the UK from Malawi thirteen years ago. Like myself, Mercy is HIV positive. Mercy is a beautiful, proud and empowered HIV positive woman. She does not want people to feel sorry for her, she simply wants people to listen. Mercy is one of approximately 34,000 women living with HIV in the UK. On 18 May I'm hosting an event in parliament with Positively UK on the theme of women and HIV, highlighting the issues women living with HIV face.
Women are, to a certain extent, the silent face of HIV. Gay men constitute one of the most empowered groups living with HIV. We have been at the forefront of HIV activism for thirty years. Like gay men, women face a multiplicity of issues. They too are confronted by stigma. Many women living with HIV face violence from their partners. Women are more likely than gay men to be the victims of violence on account of their HIV. Violence can take a multiplicity of forms, including psychological abuse and the threat of spurious legal action related to transmission. Perpetrators sometimes use social media to reveal a woman's HIV status. A study completed in 2012, at the Homerton Hospital, showed that 52 % of HIV positive women have experienced intimate partner violence. Fourteen per cent experienced this in the last year. Fourteen per cent experienced this during childbirth. Women can be more vulnerable to catching HIV, particularly in situations where they have been coerced into sex, a situation shared by gay men. I am a confident gay and HIV positive man. I went through an empowering process of acceptance around my sexuality and HIV status. It is important to show solidarity with women living with HIV.
Stigma underpins the violence women living with HIV face. HIV and the stigma associated with it can destroy confidence and erode lives. Stigma operates in a number of ways. Women are often the first to be tested for HIV in a family. Through a lack of awareness, they are then perceived as having brought HIV into the home. Self-stigma can leave people feeling that they cannot do better. They do not feel that they can object to violence because of a sense of shame. They lack confidence and think they will be unable to meet another partner. The male perpetrators of violence may seek to reinforce these distorted power structures. Women living with HIV who are the victims of intimate partner violence face a double stigma: the stigma of HIV and the stigma of domestic abuse.
A further issue is isolation. I want no one living with HIV to feel that they are alone. Women may experience isolation particularly during childbirth. Health and childcare are their main concerns, rather than the violence they are experiencing. Some women are rejected by their faith communities and friends on account of their HIV status. They do not know where to turn for support. This is particularly a problem for older women, who may not be as technologically proficient as younger women. They do not have the IT skills necessary to engage in online forums or find support groups.
Isolation leads to dependency. Women may not have the strength to leave a partner who is violent towards them. They may be dependent on their partner for travel and language interpretation if English is not their first language. They may struggle to access the healthcare they need for their HIV without their partner. This may make women reluctant to seek help, as they fear further isolation.
We need greater recognition that violence is an issue for women living with HIV. We also need better data collection. This could take place at HIV clinics, or within networks helping women deal with violence. Healthcare professionals, particularly HIV specialists, need to be aware of gender based violence. Asking the right questions means that HIV positive women may share what they are experiencing. Healthcare professionals should be aware of support groups designed to help women experiencing violence.
Most importantly, we need to work at empowering HIV positive women. Mercy is an outgoing and empowered HIV positive woman. We need to inspire and educate more HIV positive women, so that, like Mercy, they can be great mothers and confident individuals. Peer networks allow women to seek advice from other HIV positive women and men. Gay men have come a long way in challenging the stigma of HIV within our own community. We need to stand united in the fight against HIV. We must now break the shame surrounding women and HIV. Let us challenge stigma together.