Below is a copy of the speech I am planning to give to the CFUW in North Bay on December 2nd. I was honored to be invited to speak at their annual dinner in observation of the National Day of Remembrance on December 6th.
Good evening and thank you for the invitation to enjoy dinner with you tonight and speak to you on the intersection of HIV and violence against women. My name is Kathleen Jodouin and I am the Women and HIV Program Coordinator with the ACNBA.
The ACNBA has been in our community for more than 20 years. It provides HIV/HCV services to those infected and affected from Kirkland Lake to Parry Sound. Our funding is provided predominantly from the AIDS Bureau under the MOHLTC with one position solely funded by PHAC. Any funds we dispense to our clients, (through food vouchers, taxi vouchers, meal supplements, vitamins, medical aids…) are provided through fundraising efforts as no government funding is available to provide practical support.
I have held several positions at the agency over my 8 year tenure, (as it goes in not for profit work) and in 2010 I successfully applied for a new position which I enjoy presently as the Women and HIV Program Coordinator. In this role I am a member of the provincial Women and HIV Initiative, (WHAI), housed regional at ACNBA.
Why WHAI? Because it is an answer to a local need for a flexible response to HIV among women in Ontario that takes into account the structural and societal factors that make women vulnerable to HIV.
The goals of the initiative are to reduce transmission among women, enhance local capacity to address HIV, and to build safe environments to support women and their HIV related needs.
Ultimately WHAI’s objective is to strengthen the capacity of local communities to support women living with and or affect by HIV.
In my role I engage with local groups that work with woman in our community, especially those women who may be at risk for HIV infection because of their vulnerabilities which are often a result of the social determinants of health. Through this work I became actively involved in the violence against women sector. Currently I Chair the Nipissing DVCCC and a member of the Timiskaming DVC.
When I speak of women and HIV and the intersection with violence I often use terms related to that of a heterosexual relationship as statistically women are more likely to be harmed by a male intimate partner. However, I do not negate that women can be themselves the abusers and abuse can occur in same sex relationships.
HIV is both a cause and consequence of violence against women.
Violence against women can have a profound impact on a woman’s ability to make safer choices, including safer sex choices. Unequal social, political and economic power in a relationship can leave women at a greater risk of being both victims of violence and contracting HIV. In unhealthy relationships there are many unknowns, lies and mistruths. Sexual history, HIV status, and sexual relations outside of the relationship can all affect the level of HIV risk and yet where there is an imbalance of power they are rarely honestly conveyed between partners.
A woman’s ability to negotiate condom use in an abusive relationship is extremely difficult. As the subordinate her lack of power denies her the ability to make such requests of her partner and she is likely putting her own safety in jeopardy by even suggesting the use of protection. In violent relationships consent before sexual activity isn’t asked or given. When a woman is seen only as an object her rights, needs and desires are rejected. She is perpetually in the state of survival leaving no space for her health concerns. For her, fear trumps safety.
Using data gathered from 1, 100 women at risk for HIV infection, Health Canada indicated that over 67% reported sexual or physical violence by current or past partners, while 33% had been victims of childhood sexual abuse and 15% of childhood physical violence. In our agency, many of the women we provide services to have shared their stories with us which include familiar refrains of lives which have known trauma, violence and harm. Many of these women’s hostile histories have included drug use and/or engaging in high risk sexual behaviour. Reoccurring themes include exchanging sex for a place to sleep, for a bite to eat, and for companionship in a world where there has been too few kind faces. Drug use can be employed as a strategy to numb the pain and disconnect from the hurt. Drugs can also be used as a means to control and to maintain power over victims often forcing her to use shared equipment and to bargain for sex.
Not only is HIV infection a consequence of domestic violence, its status can trap a woman in an abusive relationship. If she is positive her partner can make her feel as if she is damaged goods, a marred women which no one else would ever want. He could also use the criminalization of HIV to force her to remain involved. If she leaves him, he can threaten her by saying he will go to the police and state that she did not disclosure her status to him. If he follows through on his threats she could face criminal charges as severe as aggravated sexual assault or even manslaughter.
Recently, the Supreme Court ruled on a case, where a woman fleeing an unhealthy relationship was trapped in her home with by her ex, who proceeded to violently attack her and her child. At the lower court he was found guilty for this crime but, upon sentencing his lawyer presented evidence of her HIV status claiming they had, had unprotected sex before she disclosed. He was given an absolute discharge and she was brought up on charges of aggravated sexual assault. Her case was dismissed on a technicality by the Supreme Court, but if she had been found guilty, her sentence could have included jail time and the distinction of being labelled a sexual offender.
In Canada women most vulnerable to violence tend to be, young, pregnant, living with disabilities, indigenous, experiencing poverty, racialized, and working in inherently subordinated occupations. Violence can come from within your own community, can be multigenerational and it can be systemic. Abuse is rarely without company. It is partnered with social, economic and political issues that compound its impact and heighten its stigmatization.
Stigma associated with HIV profoundly impacts a woman’s ability to both protect herself and seek help. Her vulnerability is further aggravated by the barriers she can face in accessing services and support. A woman who carries with her a stigmatized mark will recoil if she is confronted with judgment and shame. Yet, our society can be judgemental. I myself have had to answer such critical question such as, why doesn’t she leave? Why not just use a condom? A clear divide between what is right and wrong is also often drawn. I have heard, They bring it on themselves, I wouldn’t say yes if he wouldn’t use protection. I’d leave if he ever hurt me. We also expect our help to be accepted and easy to give. Why not just go to a shelter? Well you can’t help those who won’t help themselves.
Fused with the stigma associated with violence, a woman may never seek help. The intersection between HIV and violence against women is a complicated interchange of causes and consequences that can confine a woman in space filled with risks and harms.
It has been 25 years since the Montreal Massacre where 14 woman lost their lives because of their gender and because violence against women was not a priority in Canada. Where have we come since then?
If the intersection of HIV and violence against women over the past 25 years proves anything, it is that women’s subjection to violence, abuse and inequality is not only the norm, but acceptable in our society. If those 14 lives were not a good enough reason to make fundamental changes what more will it take? Is the recent events involving the CBC and parliament hill the final straw? Why isn’t the more than 1100 missing and murderer indigenous women not worth the same media attention and outcry on the status of woman in Canada? And what about those women whose lives are adversely impacted by the social determinants of health, whose experiences are full of violence and trauma, and whose risk to their health and wellbeing include possible HIV infection? Who’s live is worth a united stance demanding the eradication of violence in the lives of all Canadian women?
How can we change this disturbing trend?
First we can demand better representation of woman in media. Headlines and covers are filled with women as the victim, in powerless situations. Where are the woman who serve as strong leaders in our communities, those are the stories we must petition our media outlets to carry. We also have the power to turn off any media where a woman’s value is judged solely by her appearance and use as a sexual object. By moving our spending dollars away from the sexualisation of woman and girls we can loudly proclaim to the marketers and corporate parties that we will no longer tolerate their perception on the status of women.
We can support each other. Solidify the sisterhood we are naturally drawn too, but do so outside our own social circles to be more inclusive. To do so we need to question our criticism and judgements of each other and counter them with understanding and support. We need to raise each other up and celebrate each of our talents, achievements and successes.
We also can be a positive movement of action. It takes many small pieces to complete a puzzle. Let us each work to improve the status of women in our own way, by standing up for a cause, supporting a charity, giving our time, donating, or lending a supportive shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen with. If we each do our part, as a piece of that larger puzzle we will achieve the goal of mobilizing feminism in Canada and improving the lives of woman.