|Young Women: Silence, Suspectibility and the HIV Epidemic (UNDP, 10 p.)|
Strategies must be found that lengthen the time before the onset of sexual intercourse in young women, increase the age at first pregnancy and which increase the ability of young girls to control the situations in which they are sexually active.
Spaces must be created within which young girls can be free, and feel free, from the threat of HIV infection, within which they can pass more time before leaving to enter the world of sexual relationships and procreation and within which they can talk to each other about their coping and survival strategies, their difficulties and their successes.
Safe havens must also be found or created which would allow social and emotional interactions between girls and boys, young women and young men, and in which they can discuss and set aside the peer pressures, cultural norms and gender archetypes which increase their vulnerability to infection.
The family should be the foremost of these sanctuaries. Young girls should leave their families uninfected and should be able to return to them when in fear of infection. The silence around incest must be broken, above all by mothers and those who minister to and provide service to such families. The direct price of incest is higher than ever now. The collusion of families, whether from greed or acceptance, in customs and practices which threaten the lives of their daughters must cease. Neither young women nor young men should be pressured into child or early marriages or into early pregnancies. Dowry payments or patrilocality should not prevent the possibility of a young woman returning to her family home when in fear of being infected.
Families alone cannot change cultural norms, values and practices.36 Thus, advocating families as sanctuaries require a complementary strategy of cultural change. Such a strategy must be led by the guardians and enforcers of culture, influential community leaders, older women, the elders, as well as by those who are now demanding such change, young men and women and their parents.
The school should also be a sanctuary from infection. However, the school is a site of non-consensual sexual activities and of HIV infection. Rape, sexual abuse and coercion by male staff and pupils combined with the exchange of sex with older men for school fees currently make the school a feared and fearful place. Community acceptance of this as normal must change. A policy of providing scholarships would obviate the need for young girls to find older men to finance their schooling. Sanctions enforced by local communities would change entrenched patterns of sexual exploitation of young girls by teachers or male students. These sanctions are now beginning to be imposed in some seriously affected areas as communities strive to keep some of their young girls uninfected.
Organizations and clubs for young women create sanctuaries where young girls can spend time without the threat of infection. They break the isolation of individual women and can lead to the creation of social support networks where young women can seek counsel and be given support to change their behaviour and to create change in their communities.
Groups working amongst street children in Brazil have opened safe houses where the girls can escape from the pressures of the street and regain a feeling of security and control over their lives. One such house is the Casa de Passagen (Passage house) in Recife, Brazil37.
Such groups and organizations can also provide a refuge where infected girls and young women can come together and provide each other with support, exchange information on care and treatment and discuss issues of basic concern such as disclosure, sexuality, discrimination, pregnancy and their children's futures.
It is critical that religious organizations also create such sanctuaries for women and for men, separately and together. This would lend their moral authority to a recognition of the importance and value of young women and would help families and communities to find the courage to change and to provide sanctuary themselves.
These safe havens are critical for young girls to reach the physical maturity and the emotional and social maturity necessary to have greater control over their lives and the situations in which they have sexual intercourse.