“In some cases, they are couples who have been together for years,” María Eugenia Gilligan, an activist with the Argentine Network of Women Living with HIV, told IPS. “The age range has even expanded, and we are finding more and more women over 60.”
The women interviewed were all diagnosed since Jan. 1, 2009. The aim was to find out in what circumstances they were infected. Gilligan said many of the women were “uninformed.”
The sample included women between the ages of 17 and 70, although 51 percent were 25 to 39. Around 70 percent had reached but not necessarily completed secondary school, and a few had university or other tertiary level education.
The report to which IPS had access has not yet been officially released, but the preliminary results were presented on the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, celebrated Monday, May 28.
The survey described the living conditions of the respondents. For example, it reported that more than half of them live in crowded homes, 70 percent have no social security coverage, and only 46 percent work outside the home.
The study was carried out by the Gino Germani Research Institute of the University of Buenos Aires, and the Centre of Population Studies, with the backing of the Health Ministry and multilateral organizations like UN Women and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
The chief conclusions are that 92 percent of women living with HIV were infected by means of unprotected sexual relations, while 73 percent said they were infected within a stable relationship.
The results partly coincide with Health Ministry statistics which indicate that there are 130,000 people living with HIV in this country of 40 million people, where the main channel of transmission is unprotected sex.
“We noted that since 2008 there is less public information available and there are more uninformed women. Specific campaigns are needed, and counselling and advice are failing. Although a lot is being done, there is much more to do,” Gilligan said.
For 60 percent of those surveyed, the diagnosis was “totally unexpected.” One 51-year-old woman said that after being faithful to the man she lived with for 11 years, she couldn’t believe she had been infected.
Official statistics suggest that up to half of all people living with HIV in this country do not know they are infected.
“We almost always see the same thing. The women didn’t know (their male partners) had the virus,” said Gilligan, who added that violence “is one factor that increases the vulnerability of women by making them reluctant to demand the use of condoms, as a precautionary measure.”
She said a majority of the women living with HIV had suffered physical and/or sexual abuse from a young age.
“It’s not that they don’t insist on condom use because they are crazy,” Gilligan said. “The problem is that many of them cannot negotiate the issue with their partners, out of fear of violence, so they use other methods of birth control.”
The study also found that over 44 percent of the women had experienced conflict or tension with their partners at some point over the use of condoms.
Most of the women interviewed said they discovered they were HIV-positive by chance: when they were pregnant, during a routine check-up, or in pre-surgery tests. Only 10 percent had gone in for testing after finding out that their partners were living with HIV.
The report also discusses what happens once a woman has found out that she tests positive for the AIDS virus. It points to shortcomings in terms of confidentiality, and in counselling to help women deal with the situation.
Some women, for example, face “hostile situations” when they are told they test positive for HIV, the report says. It also mentions cases in which a family member is informed even before the woman herself, or in which she is told of her HIV-positive status in front of others, such as doctors, nurses or relatives.
The personal accounts also show that there are women who leave the medical clinic or hospital without fully understanding the results of the test. “They told me it was ‘reactive’, but I didn’t know if that meant positive or not,” one of the respondents said.
By Marcela Valente