Speaking Out

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Fri Nov 13, 2009

Rape and AIDS, mixing insult, injury and the threat of death

By Sohaila Abdulali

A recent survey of 38,000 Cameroonian women found that 20 percent of the women reported having been raped, sometimes more than once, and another 14 percent said they had escaped a rape attempt. The nationwide survey was conducted by the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and Cameroon's National Association of Aunties (RENATA). The numbers are staggering even if you don’t know that husbands can rape wives with impunity, so the actual number of rapes is much higher. As terrible as these figures are, they are sadly typical. It’s also sadly typical that most of the women knew their rapists. Just ordinary men like a clergyman, a neighbor, a family friend. 

In Cameroon, the official adult HIV prevalence rate is 5.5%. When you break it down by gender, 6.7% of women aged 15-49 are infected, and 4.1% of men have the virus. Among women aged 15-24, the difference is even starker: the overall rate is 3.2%, but 4.8% of women are infected, compared with 1.4% of the young men. (These figures are from the International Planned Parenthood Federation.) 

Rape is a huge risk factor for contracting HIV. Unprotected sexual contact is risky under any circumstances, but unprotected forced sexual contact is much more risky. 

Consider the mechanics of infection. The vagina, full of mucous membranes, is naturally susceptible to infection under any circumstances. When something is forced in there, the chance of cuts and tears goes up. If blood and wounds are involved, the virus has another easy way to find a new home.

One of HIV’s horrible, and less well-known, characteristics is that you are never immune even after you are infected. If you’re already HIV-positive, re-infection with a different strain of HIV can make complicate treatment, and sometimes make it impossible. 

Another study by the same organizations found that of the 33 reported cases between 2004 and 2007 at the Bamenda High Court, exactly two led to sentencing. So rape, while risky for women, remains relatively free of consequences for the men who do the raping.

The young women of Cameroon are not alone. All over the world, men use women’s bodies callously, for either gratification or power. Ask any woman and she’ll tell you a tale, a tale of terrible violation or heart-pounding escape. 

Ask me. Four men attacked me when I was a teenager.

Ask my former co-worker. She was raped in a botanical garden.

Ask my friend. She went on vacation and a group of policemen attacked her.

Ask my teaching assistant in graduate school. Her stepfather attacked her.

Ask my cousin. Our uncle attacked her.

Rape, unfortunately, is so common as to be banal, except when it happens to you. And when you add HIV to the mix, it can kill you in body as well as in spirit.