The School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University and Action Aid India have carried out a study titled Understanding Violence against Women and its implications for our struggle against HIV and AIDS. Over a period of six months, the two organisations conducted 60 interviews with HIV-positive women in several areas of West Bengal, and also interviewed health officials and policy makers. They also studied legislations and policies on HIV/AIDS as well as VAW to assess the extent to which linkages between them have been addressed in law.
The study covered Kolkata, Howrah, Siliguri, and parts of North Bengal where pockets of 'positive' networks are already active. The findings from the study were shared at a two-day workshop in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in April, in preparation for a campaign focussing on these linkages. The workshop focussed on relatively unexplored areas - such as how women are victims of pre-contractual violence, meaning, violence before they have contacted HIV, and also of post-contractual violence, i.e. violence after they have been diagnosed as 'positive' victims.
Case studies revealed that pre-contractual violence was rooted in (i) economic debility of women, (ii) lack of awareness and education, and (iii) early marriage. Mrs. N was married at 14 to a man who was HIV+ but she was not informed about his health status. She discovered that he already had two daughters from a previous marriage. The husband was too sick to work and also suffered from epileptic fits. So, when a man in the neighbourhood asked her if she would come to Kolkata to work, she said "yes." By then, she was 18 and became a sex worker. Ignorant, illiterate and poor, Mrs. N did not have any negotiating power which reduces the risk of infection through violence. This is violence on the woman through (a) denial of information, (b) withholding of information about the husband's health status, and (c) forcing normal sexual relations on the unsuspecting woman rendering her vulnerable to infection.
Mrs. J, 26, had normal sex relations with her sick husband for five years not knowing what he suffered from. Whenever she took her husband to the hospital, she was not allowed to talk to the doctor. When they diagnosed him as HIV+, she had no money and with a small child of two-and-half, was not able to go to work. She went from door to door to collect money for his treatment. But he died and she had nothing to fall back on. By the time he died, she was diagnosed positive and so was her child. The very fact that Mrs. J made bold to talk about her case underlines a point of resistance and an example of agency at work.
The worst case is when the widow of a HIV+ husband is thrown out of the house after the husband's death which deprives her of her legitimate share in the family property/land/house, and denies her even her basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. This happens very often and when the widow is also diagnosed positive, it transcends pre-contractual violence to step into post-contractual violence.
The needs of married women, the study suggests, can be addressed in several ways. These include: prevention of child marriage through awareness-raising campaigns, protection against forced marital rape through agency and empowerment, investing girls and women with the ability to negotiate safe sex without the threat of violence, the right to marriage without social stigma, protection from emotional and verbal abuse, sensitisation of local Panchayats at the administrative level, and making it mandatory to have HIV-AIDS status of both partners tested before marriage.
Sex workers too are getting more vocal and aggressive about their rights. The study revealed that they claim the right to practice their profession in the absence of viable alternative choices and insist on confidentiality as part of professional ethics because experience has shown that the public health system does not practice the confidentiality victims, (both men and women) of HIV and AIDS need. The institutionalisation of sex workers into organised activism in pockets of Kolkata and West Bengal has brought down the rate of police harassment on them.
Putul Sinha, a sex worker and an active member of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, one of the largest organisations of sex workers in West Bengal, said, "Housewives are in a more vulnerable position than sex workers because it is assumed that they have absolutely no right to insist that their husbands use condoms during sex. I do not agree that sex workers are a marginalised lot so far as resistance to the threat of HIV and AIDS go. The housewife, sadly, does not have this freedom or option. The root of the problem lies in the fact that there is a strong bias against sex in Indian society where girls are conditioned to think that the sex act is a very bad thing though this is an essential part of everyday life."
However, Mrs. R, a sex worker interviewed as part of the study, pointed to many other risks which can be just as grave, if not worse. She said that even when the brothel madam did not use force, local goons would come with knives and daggers and demand to be entertained any which way. They would rape the girls, not use protective measures like condoms, and sometimes, when the police would come, they too would take away the younger girls and rape them in the lock-up. "Looking back, I feel sad that I consciously decided to enter into sex work to support my mother and my grandmother. But I did not have an option. I am talking about this, hoping that your efforts would help us from this kind of violence," she summed up.
Anchita Ghatak of Action Aid stressed on the inclusion of men in the study. "We must look at this problem from a human rights angle applicable equally to men and women because it is a fight to empower HIV and AIDS victims with the right to assert their identity. It is basically a human rights issue. We stress the issue of gender victimisation because of the patriarchal system we live and work in. Men are as much victims of patriarchy as are women. They are also victims of social violence and medical negligence when diagnosed positive. A reworking of the social fabric is called for to raise the social status of women. This is important. And for this to take effect, it is imperative for men too to enter into the dialogue."