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Josephine Varghese, India

1. What do you see as the current gaps in the HIV response for women and girls and what are key barriers and enablers to accessing HIV/SRHR services?

The main barrier in accessing HIV/SRHR services in my community continues to be the taboo surrounding discussing sexual activity and sexual health, especially outside the context of marriage. The seemingly unbreakable link between ‘family pride’ and sexual ‘purity’ of its woman folk make it difficult for women and girls to discuss and access information and services related to sexual and reproductive health. Comprehensive sex education that is sex-positive and inclusive of gender and sexuality minorities is a necessity to bridge this gap. Social stigma and criminalization of sex work still act as barriers for this highly vulnerable group from accessing HIV and SRHR services. It is also important to mention the commendable efforts made by the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) and NGOs associated in drastically reducing the percentage of new incidences in India and providing access to treatment (ART- anti-retroviral treatment) and preventive measures.

2. What effective strategies have worked in your community to prevent and address GBV in all its forms & what laws do you think need to be strengthened or repealed to help prevent and address GBV; and to protect the rights of women and girls in all of our diversity?

While policies and legislative changes are necessary to curb the violation of fundamental human rights of women (right against violence, right to a life of dignity, right to bodily integrity), what seems lacking in my community is a revolutionary change in the patriarchal mindset of the common person- regardless of their gender. Patriarchy is overarching, and encompasses not only men, but all people. Ongoing critical self-introspection of actions, perspectives and values we take for granted is essential to do away with oppressive patriarchy.

A great deal of awareness around violence against women was created during the popular protests in the wake of the Delhi gang rape a few years ago. Yet it seems like the majority of the protests focused on punishment rather than socio-economic change that would prevent GBV. The delay in completion of trials along with falling conviction rates seen in rape cases stand as testimony to the fact that reforms in the judiciary are long overdue. A revision of colonial-era laws in the global south is also called for. It is to be remembered that these laws were formulated in a hetero-normative and patriarchal western context that was alien to cultural and historical contexts of the colonized cultures. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes any sexual activity outside penile-vaginal intercourse is an example for this. Another area that needs urgent reform is marital rape, which is still not criminalized in India.  

3. How can young women be supported to break structural barriers that hinder the progress towards gender equality?

Access to education and fundamental services is the first step in this direction. In India, the ‘right to education act’ along with supportive schemes for education of girl children are steps in the right direction. In schools, the curriculum needs to be revised from a feminist perspective to do away with patriarchal values that invisibly seep through the stories and lessons children learn from an early age. For these aims to be realized, advocacy at all levels is essential. Civil society movements that use the power and reach of channels available to them (for instance, in today’s world, social media) to press society & governments for change is what brought us thus far. These movements need to be strengthened and continued.

4. Why do we need a feminist HIV response?

Any comprehensive and effective HIV response needs to question patriarchal, hetero-normative values and norms. It has to:

  • Be sensitive and supportive of the needs and rights of gender and sexual minorities
  • Fight against oppressive patriarchal norms such as slut shaming, taboo against premarital sexual activity and the over-emphasis on female virginity, enabling girls and women to discuss sexuality more openly.
  • Support rights of sex workers and marginalized communities

Only an intersectional feminist response can meaningfully fulfill these fundamental conditions.

5. The world will meet in June at the High Level Meeting on AIDS 2016, what is one of things you would like to see come out of this meeting, especially that it happens after adoption of SDGs?

My fundamental concern regarding the fight against AIDS is access. Sexual and reproductive health should be understood as a universal fundamental right and leaders of the world should resolve to provide it to the remotest of settlements and the most marginalized of communities. HIV test should be accessible to all, and ideally made part of routine tests at primary health centers.

Thanks to our partner Catherine Nyambura for her support on this project. See more at