New Delhi: On December 1, 2004, ”In women’s hands”, a 27-minute film on women and HIV was launched by the Global Campaign for Microbicides in 40 cities across the world showing a window of hope to women who could now have greater control over their lives.
More than three years later, on the eve of World Health Day 2007, the film found its way to India, where it was screened to select civil society members in New Delhi. The screening was followed by a panel discussion, reiterating the power of microbicides, urging policy makers and funding organizations to step forward and intensify the campaign in this region.
The film captures what it means to be a woman in a world where many have little or no say on relationships, sex and condoms and fewer ways of protecting themselves against HIV or STI.
The film, shot largely in sub Saharan Africa, which has been the epicenter of the epidemic, has shots of helpless and vulnerable women in USA, UK, Europe and Thailand. While India may be missing in terms of a visible face or voice, the story of the women in the film could be that of any woman, in any part of the world.
The increasing feminization of the epidemic with nearly 50% of all people living with HIV/AIDS being women, makes microbicides one of the most exciting breakthroughs in modern medicine.
According to UNAIDS, globally, young women and girls are more susceptible to HIV than men and boys, with studies showing they are 2.5 times more likely to be HIV infected as their male counterparts. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 41% of all new infections are occurring among women, mostly younger than 25 years of age.
In the absence of a vaccine for AIDS, the condom has been touted as the only prevention against infection, but its efficacy is not linked with awareness. Whether it is because of low risk perception or denial, unlike countries like Thailand or Cambodia, 100% condom use is yet to replicate in countries, including India.
The microbicide which typically will be produced in the form of a gel, cream, suppository, film, lubricant, sponge or vaginal ring is going to be that magic wand which will enable women to take control over their lives – at least their sexual lives and free themselves of the anxiety that comes with ignorance and not knowing how and when their partner may infect them.
Microbicides are female controlled prevention options requiring less or no negotiation with partners, are not a physical barrier to sexual pleasure, do not interrupt the natural course of events during sex, broaden the range of safer sex choices and are not necessarily contraceptive.
The film without taking positions tries to deal with gender equality with the objective of restoring power to women. While the film does not look at the sensitive and controversial issue of clinical trials, it builds the case for research in additional women-focused prevention methods, like cervical barriers; advocacy strategies and messages that expand the range of prevention methods and on supporting awareness with investment and political will.
According to Akhila Sivadas, Executive Director, Centre for Advocacy and Research, “The film pushes the point of using a microbicide upfront but whether it works or not, waits to be seen. There have been female control techniques but they suffer from problems like being positioned within cultural norms or are dominated by men. We have to first address power inequalities that place women at risk in the first place before making something like microbicides available.”
Anandi Yuvraj, programme manager, PATH hopes that the film will not only find donors who can help conceptualize India specific themes in what will be a series of films adapted to suit Indian needs and cultural mores, but more importantly serve as a critical advocacy tool by the government, NGOs and CBOs who are out there on the field, in dialogue with the community.