Teaching women how to identify and face gender violence is a sine qua non for HIV/AIDS prevention work.
Damaris Rondón, a 37-year-old resident in Yara, a municipality in Granma province, 750 kilometers east of Havana, learnt it the hard way.
"My best friend got HIV-infected three years ago, after having been married to the man who became her boyfriend when they were in junior high. He had been having unsafe sex with somebody else. I was so terrified that I asked my husband to use condom. He did not talk to me and stayed away for over a month," she told SEMlac.
"I live in permanent fear because I am not 100-percent sure he is having sex only with me and we are using no protection," she added. Hers is not an isolated case in the province.
"We need to address personal growth, self-esteem, gender violence and many other issues. It is true that information alone can not change sexual behavior, but it is a good step," said Yenys Milanés, coordinator of a local project on women and HIV/AIDS.
Focusing on women aged 15 to 49, the project is being implemented by over 100 promoters.
"Gender violence results from deeply rooted male chauvinistic traditions. We have to talk about it before we deal with condom use negotiation and safe sex practices," stressed América Santoya, a psychologist who in charge of academic and research works under the project.
"Many local working women and housewives are abused by their husbands and often abuse their children," she indicated. "They are humiliated, undervalued and assailed," she noted.
"Most of them, especially housewives, do not even realize they are being abused," she commented.
"They ignore they can say NO to sex if they do not want to. They face a very difficult situation on a daily basis," she remarked.
Women and HIV
Women make up 48 percent of all HIV-positive people in the world today. They account for 25 percent in Latin America and 35 percent in the Caribbean
A report of the National Prevention Center for STIs, HIV and AIDS indicated last December that one every 1,000 people in the island was HIV-infected.
Men stand for 80 percent of the total number of cases. Over 86 percent of them are Men having Sex with Men (MSM).
The National Office of Statistics (ONE) conducted a survey on HIV/AIDS patients on outpatient care last year, showing that 31.6 percent of positive women were under 25 years of age and 39 percent were under 35.
While Havana is still the province exhibiting the highest prevalence rate, women in the central and eastern regions make up the majority of people living with HIV/AIDS, it revealed.
A previous study had concluded that only five percent of the sexually active population used condom on a regular basis.
While most local women are aware of the need to prevent the virus from further spreading, they believe they will never get infected. They simply trust their sexual partners, do not like condom, or have never used it.
A high prevalence rate among men is an indication that husbands are infecting wives.. "We women are always expected to accept whatever our sexual partners decide," Rondón emphasized.
"A report we prepared last month indicates that local women still have a low risk perception and little skills to negotiate condom use," Milanés told SEMlac.
"We have set up community centers to hold meetings for women," she announced. There are 105 promoters doing prevention work everywhere, including the media," she added.
These meetings deal with educational and cultural aspects, and are being regularly held in municipalities like Yara, Cauto, Guisa and Bayamo.
"One of the first meetings we organized took place in 2007 under a joint project with a foreign NGO (Médicos del Mundo)," she recalled.
"We made special emphasis then on using condom not only with occasional partners, but also with husbands," she stressed.
"We are now planning to train new promoters to cover all women," she anticipated.
"The number of meeting participants has been steadily growing over the years," she commented.
"One of our strengths has been to work in close coordination with the Provincial Sex Education Commission," she noted.
"We have not been improvising. People need to know what self-esteem, decision making and gender violence are all about to be able to use condom in a conscious manner and not to begin having sex at an early stage," stressed Zeyda Santiesteban, chairperson of the Commission and director of the local HIV/AIDS Prevention Center.
A new telephone counseling service seeking to help prevent and disseminate information about breast cancer is available in the island.
It was launched by Dr. Alexis Cantero, head of the Breast-Cancer Section at the Cuban Surgery Society, on October 20 (World Day against Breast Cancer). The celebration was held at the Manuel Fajardo Clinical-Surgical Hospital in Havana.
The service will be provided by activists and volunteers (former breast-cancer patients who have undergone surgery) every Tuesday and Thursday, from 2.00 p.m. to 4.00 p.m. The telephone numbers are: 836-99-36 and 836-99-37.
Local people are usually warm and kiss each other when they say hello. Those who are cautious, however, are thinking it twice before they do so, not to get infected with the A/H1N1 influenza virus.
Last October 9, 167 days after the virus was introduced in the country, the Ministry of Public Health announced that there were 621 cases and that three pregnant women had died of it.
“Like in many other countries, the most vulnerable population groups in Cuba include pregnant women and children under five years of age,” said Natacha Barrios, a doctor working at the Plaza Polyclinic in downtown Havana.
Wearing the blue uniform of pre-university students, Dayron approaches a condom-dispensing machine, places a coin in slot and gets a three-unit pack all on his own.
There are 12 machines like this one in Havana, including the local university and the national bus station. They are part of a pilot project that seeks to measure how effective they can really be.
They complement condom sale at 83 pharmacies and over 400 non-traditional outlets (catering facilities and stores) in Havana. Over 50 percent of Cuban HIV-positive patients live in this 2.2-million-inhabitant city.
X is a great friend of mine. She tasted the honey of freedom and burned her boats (as we say in Cuba when we stay in land and let go). I spoke of her last November in an article entitled Disabled women and family love. She is totally blind and moved to Madrid with her guitar, her good voice, and her music training.
She ran away from her devoted mother. She wanted to be independent, do what she likes, and deal with scorn or gibe using her intelligence and even temper. She had been living in a cage.
She plays her guitar at a subway station during the day and at a jazz club in the evening.
Three million women resort to abortion every year in 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries. This does not include a similar number in Brazil. Most of them use illegal procedures because abortion is punishable by law.
Cuba and the Federal District in Mexico are the exceptions to the rule in a region where mother mortality rates are high and women are persecuted and incarcerated for “such a crime”.
As a result of growing pressure by conservative groups and the Catholic Church, criminal sanctions are really tough in countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Abortion in Chile started to be punished in 1989, when the military dictatorship was in its death throes.
The Bible mentions the word abortion only on two occasions and does not condemn it explicitly. Nevertheless, the sacred book is often used to criticize decriminalization of a procedure that is demanded by women all over the world.
Based on the Bible and canon law, Catholics for the Right to Choose (CDD), an international organization of women believers, has asked States to provide access to effective medical and legal services in unwanted pregnancy cases.
According to Chilean theologian Izani Bruch, the first reference to abortion appears in the Old Testament, specifically in Exodus, chapter 21: 22-23 (Judgments): “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life.”
The Honduran people are putting up with repression and struggling for democracy and constitutional order. They are defying the curfew and evading de facto government measures.
Resistance sources said that the military had used chemical and hyper sonic sound (HSS) weapons against participants in a march on September 26. The latter were first utilized by the U.S. army in Iraq in 2004 and by the Israeli army in Gaza a year later.
A report of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH) indicated that HSS and VMAD (vehicle-mounted active denial system) are considered “non-lethal weapons”. In fact, HSS weapons induce vomit and faint, and VMAD causes skin burns.
The last few days have been crucial in Honduran history, not only because President Manuel Zelaya is back, but also because local men and women are heroically resisting the June 28 military coup.
The de facto government imposed a new curfew on September 21, and many people have been beaten, tortured and arrested ever since.
Both the national police and the military have systematically tried to suppress rebellion. Last September 22, those who were keeping vigil at the Brazilian embassy, where President Zelaya is staying, were moved away using tear gas bombs and armored personnel carriers.
Most of them found protection at human rights and women’s organizations the military sought to break into.
Those under arrest were taken to Chochi Sosa Stadium in Tegucigalpa and the Olympic Stadium in San Pedro Sula. This action reminded people of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship in Chile.
The police have been arresting men and women. On September 26, they attacked participants in a peaceful march, killing two of them and leaving several wounded.
Some feminists were not arrested because they showed their identifications as members of the International Women’s Rights Observatory in Honduras. They were threatened and beaten, however.
The government has ordered the police to crush resistance at any cost, but the people are fighting back.
The Foreign Minister under the de facto regime was quoted as saying that calm has been restored, urged the population to observe the curfew, and denied civil-society violations by the army.
A member of the Democratic Unity Party who asked not to be identified told SEMlac that two patrol cars had arrived in a gas station where she had parked last September 24. “There were five of us, four women and one man. We were all dragged out of the vehicle and brutally beaten,” she added.
A day before, several youngsters in the capital city had been hit and threatened to death by the same squads.
A young woman who was participating in a march was also arrested, beaten and intimidated.
A five-month-pregnant schoolteacher in San Pedro Sula was arrested, dragged by her hair and hit. She was later accused of being a member of the resistance.
A 48-year-old seller in La Trinidad (Tegucigalpa) had his arms broken and his personal belongings (cell phone, clothes, money and documents) taken by the police.
Dr. Mauricio Castellanos indicated that the hydrogen cyanide bombs that were thrown at the Brazilian embassy on September 24 make breathing difficult, especially when the toxic gets to the blood (see http://libertaddeexpresionhn.blogspot.com/2009/09/honduras-cianuro-de-hidrogeno-contra.html). This substance causes vertigo, nasal bleeding and respiratory problems.
Residents in the capital city told local media representatives that they felt dizzy shortly after the bombs exploded. Government officials said over the radio that no chemical had been used. “It was only cleaning detergent,” they added.
Red Cross ambulances were stopped by the military to prevent paramedics from providing emergency care to victims. A report of the National Resistance Front indicated that sonic weapons had been used.
Women have been playing a key role in the resistance movement in Honduras. They turned out at the Brazilian embassy on September 21 to support President Manuel Zelaya, who had been ousted from office last June.
They have continued working and participating in demonstrations and meetings. “This makes us shudder,” said Yarman Jiménez, who has been posted to the International Feminist Radio office in Costa Rica.
Resistance Feminists and Women’s Observatory have been receiving and sending e-mails since September 22 to let people know of army and police persecutions, raids and killings.