South African women need more than World Cup condoms

HIV/Aids is now the biggest worldwide cause of death and disease among reproductive-age women, according to the BBC’s report into a new initiative by UNAids, the UN’s HIV/Aids agency. The initiative aims to identify the gender issues responsible for women being disproportionately affected by the virus, and address them.

From the BBC article:

“One of the key issues, [UNAids] says, is that up to 70% of women worldwide have been forced to have unprotected sex… The agency says that experiencing violence hampers women’s ability to negotiate safe sex. It warns that, nearly 30 years from the beginning of the epidemic, HIV services do not respond to the specific needs of women and girls.”

The initiative will attempt to more effectively analyse how the epidemic affects women, and integrate information about violence against women in HIV prevention programmes. This is a great idea, and long overdue to say the least.

And then… there came this news story from The Guardian this morning, reporting on how the UK Government are planning to send 42 million condoms to South Africa in preparation for this year’s World Cup. This donation is in response to a request from President Jacob Zuma, who has asked for a billion condoms as part of an HIV-prevention drive ahead of the influx of thousands of football fans.

From the report:

“The South African government estimates that up to half a million visitors could travel to the country, raising fears of a rise in prostitution and sex trafficking from neighbouring countries and eastern Europe, and creating a potential HIV timebomb.

Last week South Africa’s Central Drug Authority warned that 40,000 prostitutes were expected to arrive for the month-long tournament.”

Now, I think we can all agree on the sensibleness of condom use whenever penetrative sex is had. But this makes me uncomfortable for several reasons. Firstly, there is the obvious assumption being made, completely unquestioningly, that football fans (and presumably footballers too) will be having sex with prostitutes while in South Africa (never mind those football fans who might not be straight males, or might just want to, y’know, watch football). This assumption is made without any kind of judgement – seemingly without any recognition from the UK Government that if a male fan were to do this, there’s a good chance he would be raping the woman or girl in question.

Secondly, who is being protected by this donation? Surely this is about the UK simply wanting to ensure its citizens don’t catch HIV from South African prostitutes and bring it back to this country. Furthermore, call me cynical, but Zuma’s request seems like it is an attempt to evade the diplomatic nightmare of his country infecting thousands of foreign nationals with a deadly disease, and the subsequent effects on the tourist industry this might have, rather than a show of any real concern for the most vulnerable people in this situation: women and girls, South African and immigrant, particularly sex workers. After all, this is a man who, while being tried for the rape of an HIV-positive family friend in 2006 (he was acquitted), testified in court that he took a shower to reduce the risk of HIV infection; he later had unprotected sex with a family friend’s daughter, who became the mother of his 20th child.

South Africa is a country where one in five adults are living with HIV/Aids, and young women are three times more likely to be infected with HIV than men of the same age. HIV prevention programmes need more of the UK’s support all the time, not just when British football fans happen to be taking a jolly over there. And if UNAids’ initiative is to succeed, then our Government needs to be saying to any tourists going to Africa (not just football fans), and indeed everyone everywhere, not just ‘wear a condom’ but don’t commit violence against women.