KYRGYZSTAN: UNIFEM tackling higher HIV/AIDS rates among women
Bishkek, 16 September 2003 (IRIN) - The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) is to implement a project on gender and HIV/AIDS in Kyrgyzstan - the first such project for the Central Asia region. Of those that contract HIV/AIDS every year in the Kyrgz republic, 55 percent are thought to be female. But the majority of those officially registered with the disease are males.
"But it doesn't mean that the Kyrgyz women are less exposed to HIV/AIDS. On the contrary, due to their physiological peculiarities women are more exposed to the risk of contracting the disease," Nurgul Jamankulova, a consultant on gender issues at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) told IRIN in the capital, Bishkek.
Community-based research to identify why there is increased vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS has recently been completed with the support of UNIFEM. The research is unique as it is the first study in Central Asia focusing on behavioural patterns related to HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in rural communities.
"Various gender and sexual-behavioural stereotypes are still prevailing, when a woman cannot reject having sexual contact with her husband and resist his spontaneous [sexual] desires," Jamankulova said, adding that this fact made women more vulnerable to the disease. She said that UNIFEM's project hoped to foster new approaches to sexual relationships by helping women to better control the situation. "If we [continue to] refer to the peculiarities of the oriental mentality, we will simply die of HIV/AIDS," she warned.
There were some reported cases when men attacked or insulted social workers because they had opened up a discussion of equal partnership in sexual relations and family planning methods. "It is a reaction of a [male] 'owner' for whom sex is a means of satisfying his needs and who is not interested in the desires of his wife and her health," Jamankulova explained.
Commenting on the causes of such behaviour patterns, she said it was related to socialisation within what remains a patriarchal and male-dominated society. "Boys' heads are filled up with notions of leadership and independence from their early childhood, while girls are given secondary subordinate roles."
The UNDP consultant maintained that lack of sex education and low awareness of STDs, as statistics showed, was exacerbating the situation. In about 80 percent of cases of female HIV/AIDS in Kyrgyzstan husbands had infected their own wives. She also expressed concern over the revival of old traditions, like kidnapping future wives, in some cases even 13-year-olds, unofficial polygamy, as well as increased extra-marital sex, often with prostitutes.
"The worst thing is that all these are accepted by [Kyrgyz] society as normal," Jamankulova highlighted. "A group of young men rushed to bring a kidnapped spouse-to-be and she was badly injured on the way - her hair plaits got caught in a bicycle wheel and she was brought to her future husband's home half scalped," Jamankulova said. "She was crying out, they said, but her kidnappers didn't pay attention, saying that a 'fiancée' was supposed to cry."
Jamankulova also said that Kyrgyz families, especially in rural areas, were still were patriarchal, where every aspect of women's lives remained controlled by a strict code of behaviour. "In the long run a woman surrenders to her situation and suffers from humiliation and the most worst thing she thinks that it should be so," Jamankulova stressed.
UNIFEM's survey suggests the majority of Kyrgyz women are largely unaware of laws and statutes which promote women's right to reproductive and sexual health, equal access to education and the promotion of equality.
Commenting on the attitude of married couples to the UNIFEM's new project Jamankulova said that some couples attending the first seminar on gender aspects of HIV/AIDS intensively discussed the issue, adding that this was a good sign. "Before the problem of HIV/AIDS was addressed through the medical angle without counting gender issues. However, in practice it is hardly possible to win an HIV/AIDS combat without reference to gender problems," she ascertained.