Editor’s note: This story is part of a Special Report produced by The GroundTruth Project called “Laws of Men: Legal systems that fail women.” It is produced with support from the Ford Foundation. Reported by Tracy Jarrett and Emily Judem.
An HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, thanks to advances in medicine and treatment in the last 30 years. But stigma against HIV/AIDS and fear of discrimination still run strong in South Africa, despite legal protections, as well as drastically improved treatment, prevention techniques and education. Today an estimated 19 percent of South African adults ages 15-49 are living with HIV.
And women, who represent about 60 percent of people living with HIV in South Africa, face a disproportionately large array of consequences, including physical violence and abuse.
“Upon disclosure of women’s HIV positive status,” reads a 2012 study by the AIDS Legal Network on gender violence and HIV, “women’s lives change, due to fear and the continuum of violence and abuse perpetrated against them.”
Although forced or involuntary disclosure of one’s HIV status — along with any discrimination that may result from that disclosure — was made illegal by South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, experts and advocates say that public knowledge of these laws is limited and the legal system is not equipped to implement them.
Not only are women disproportionately affected by HIV, but they are also more likely to know their status. More women get tested, said Rukia Cornelius, community education and mobilization manager at the NGO Sonke Gender Justice, based in Johannesburg and Cape Town, because unlike men, women need antenatal care.
And often, she said, clinics give women HIV tests when they come in for prenatal visits.
The way hospitals and clinics are set up also are not always conducive to protecting privacy, said Alexandra Muller, researcher at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town.
“People who provide services in the public system, at the community level, are community members,” said Muller. “This is an important dynamic when we think about stigma and disclosure.”
Doctors and nurses can see 60 to 80 patients per day in an overcrowded facility with shared consultation rooms, Muller said.
“There’s not a lot of consideration for how is a clinic set up,” added Cornelius, so that “a health care worker who has done your test and knows your status doesn’t shout across the room to the other health care worker, ‘okay, this one’s HIV-positive, that file goes over there.’”
Once HIV-positive women disclose their status, willingly or not,they are disproportionately affected by stigma because of the direct link between HIV and gender violence.