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Women, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights


IAA organized a special event in collaboration with IUAES (International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences). The event was:

One Day session on Women, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights as part of IUAES Inter -Congress from 11th to 15th of December, 2005.

Date  : 14 Dec, 2004
Venue: Ballygaunge Science College, Kolkatta
The conference was sponsored by UNESCO.

A Report
Brief Background

AIDS can easily be looked at as one of the most significant threats facing the world today. The contemporary discourse on AIDS indicates that globally the gender dimension provides critical understanding of the social and behavioral aspects of this issue. The importance of the linkage between the vulnerability of women in the patriarchal setup of India and the rapid spread of AIDS cannot be overlooked. The weak position and dispensability of the girl child in a family, the subordination of the daughter-in-law, the medical neglect of women, the commodification of their bodies, all add up to an alarming situation not only for the women alone but for the entire society. There is an inextricable link between women and children and the entire future of the family can be jeopardized by the marginalisation of women’s health and wellbeing.

With the aim to analyze and reflect upon various issues related to HIV/AIDS and the links between women’s position, its transformation by the feminization of poverty, the Structural Adjustment Programmes of economic globalization, the pressures of urban life, the rise in criminality and a conference (special session under the IUAES Inter Congress) was hosted by the Indian Anthropological Association in collaboration with the IUAES on 14th December at Ballygunge Science College, Kolkata.

The conference aimed at generating a meaningful dialogue among agencies and individuals concerned with the empowerment and welfare of HIV/AIDS victims specially women.

The deliberations in the conference revolved around important themes ranging from social reasons for the vulnerability of women, gender roles and social/cultural stereotypes, categorization of most vulnerable groups among women, link between AIDS and feminization of poverty, cultural values and models that work against the rights of women to health, cultural attitudes and practices towards female victims of AIDS, issues of human rights, pressures of urban life to tribes and their vulnerability to the problem of AIDS and issues of state policy, public health and AIDS.

The conference hosted participants from various backgrounds (both academic and non-academic)- universities, social workers, grass root level organizations, NGOs and International funding organizations. The aim was to bring together scholars, activists and victims of HIV/AIDS on the common platform. Additional and equally important goal is to create a spillover effect through follow up workshops on this vital issue that permeates in its multiple dimensions into the everyday life of the Indian society.

Themes of the Conference

The broad themes of the conference are listed below:

  • Feminization of poverty

  • Social and cultural stereotypes

  • Aspects of human rights with respect to victims of AIDS

The Participants

The conference was well attended by over 100 people representing a plethora of spheres and affiliated to various institutions with a variety of interests and background. In terms of professions, there were people from universities from across the country as well as outside- teachers, researchers and students, and then there were activists, bureaucrats, administrators, policy makers, and grass root workers. The participants included scholars working with AIDS like Prof. Patrice Cohen, Prof. Shalina Mehta of Punjab University (Chandigarh), Prof. Buddhadeb Chaudhuri, Ambedkar Chair in Anthropology, Calcutta University, Ambedkar Chair in Anthropology, Calcutta University, Dr. Nita Mawar of National AIDS Research Institute (Pune), Dr. Nilika Mehrotra, Dr. Sunita Reddy and Dr. Rajib Dasgupta of J.N.U. New Delhi, Dr. S. M.  Patnaik of Delhi University, Dr. S. K. Chaudhury, Lucknow University, Dr. Nita Mathur of IGNOU, Delhi and many representatives from NGOs, medical doctors, social workers and students of Human rights.

The students had also made posters for the session that depicted various aspects of the problem. The session was attended by more than a hundred participants to the conference and had many interested international scholars.

Professor Faye Harrison, Chairperson,  Prof. Shankar Chaudhuri of UNESCO was invited to deliver a special address as guest of honour and gave a scintillating speech based on his long experience in dealing with AIDS and its victims.

The audience comprised of a large number of young students, researchers and professionals. It was heartening to see the enthusiasm among the group and their contribution to making the conference a success is as much as the organisers and the presenters.

Executive Summary

The gender dimension of AIDS needs particular attention because of the critical insights it provides on the social and behavioral aspects of the issue.

Unless a meaningful dialogue is generated and sustained between the various stakeholders- HIV infected persons, government, NGOs working for the betterment of the AIDS patients, academicians and social scientists as well as the common people, much of the stigma due to lack of information and discussions on the issue would continue to exist in the future.

The Indian Anthropological Association- a premier body of professional anthropologists is working in diverse fields and members of the IAA are engaged in teaching and research in grass root work, planning and administration. Hence the IAA decided to contribute meaningfully to the existing gap between the common people the various other stakeholders via the medium of the conference.

The conference provided a platform where all the players were brought together to discuss and debate the issues and experiences, thereby broadening and deepening the conceptual, methodological and practical understanding of issues related to women and HIV/AIDS.

The conference was spread over a day – December 14th. It was divided into three sessions, namely- Session I: Feminization of Poverty; Session II: Social and Cultural Stereotypes; Session III: Aspects of Human Rights with respect to victims of AIDS.

The conference was attended by over 100 people representing a plethora of spheres and affiliated to various institutions with a variety of interests and background. In terms of professions, there were people from universities from within the country and without- teachers, researchers and students, and then there were activists, policy makers, and grass root workers. The gathering was well represented in terms of age, seniority and social spaces (urban, rural and tribal people).

The students had also made posters for the session that depicted various aspects of the problem. The session was attended by more than a hundred participants to the conference and had many interested international scholars.

Session I centered on the inequitable distribution of resources within the world and within society itself. Lack of funds in the detection and treatment of AIDS is a major problem. It leads to delays or even prevention of treatment. Thus, even if the rate of infection is similar, say in the poorer sections of the world and in the developed sectors, then also the rich can easily access the most expensive treatments and ensure not only cure for themselves but also prevent the spread of the disease to members of their family and community.

Poverty makes many women vulnerable to infection, especially if they have to survive as sex workers. Poverty and lack of resources also intensify the onset of the disease related to poor nutritional status, lack of hygiene and lack of education. Further, poverty manifests itself in lack of knowledge and access to information from reliable sources making the AIDS epidemic more severe. The session also emphasized the need for interdisciplinary studies on AIDS as a lack of such studies widens the gap between knowledge of one aspect of the subject and the others.

Session II debated, deepened and enriched the understanding of the role of social and cultural stereotypes in enhancing the stigma attached to the people suffering from the infection. Categorization like the ‘Mother to Child Transfer (MTCT)’ makes the mother look like she is the only one responsible for the transmission of the disease, this further alienates a women. Such stereotypes need to be busted and replaced with appropriate phrases like ‘Parent to Child Transfer (PTCT)’ Another important theme discussed in the session was the vulnerable position of women, facing stigma from health care and the family settings simultaneously. There is a need for sensitization towards HIV positive women’s issues and concerns that could help bring about a change in outlook of the health care staff towards women HIV patients. Central to the discussion were issues of accessibility of information to women even in urban areas or the lack of it, ignorance of much of the present literature of the element of violence against women (physical, sexual, psychological) that makes them more susceptible to the disease and the often less talked about theme of HIV and the youth (under 25 years of age).

Session III looked at facts and figures related to women, HIV and human rights in the country. The speakers also talked of the biological, nutritional, psychological, social and personal vulnerability of women. A bit of history on the spread of the virus in the country illumined the potential of the problem to grow uncontrollable in the future if steps were not taken now. Since the first case reported in the 1980s the disease has claimed over 5 million victims and the numbers are increasing by the day. It has now spread into our personal spheres and is no longer somebody elses’ problem. The notion of ‘otherness’- the world being divided into ‘us’ healthy people and ‘them’ those who have AIDS is a major cause of concern as this hampers the sensitization of the people in touch with AIDS victims like health officials etc. Also, the studies on AIDS and related issues need to pick up momentum so as to generate relevant data on the spread and control of the disease and better management of patients suffering from HIV.

Some of the main recommendations are - Do not treat the category of people with HIV as a uniform one, more empirical research should be oriented towards specific field areas groups and communities so that the needs of each and the specific conditions of each group, individuals and communities may be identified, all rights must be linked to responsibilities, a conscious effort should be made in terms of education and publicity to get rid of existing stereotypes related to AIDS, women must be identified as individuals and not in relation to family, husband etc. , more effort should be spent on prevention and not only on management of persons already affected.

Where do we go from here? How can there be meaningful interaction between the various beneficiaries?

The rich anthropological knowledge could be used to develop stronger studies on AIDS and people suffering from it. Instead of sensationalizing the issue, as many a people tend to do on forums, understanding the issue so as to handle it more responsibly should be the goal.

Training programmes with special reference to interdisciplinary research methods should be organized for grass root workers with inputs from NGO workers and university professionals. The resultant studies would help NGO workers, health professionals and family members of HIV positive people becoming more sensitized to the plight of the sufferers.

There should be an effort to demystify the myths surrounding the issue in a manner most easily acceptable/understood by the common people.

There should be collaborative research conducted on the subject by scholars from various disciplines as well as the grass root workers, doctors and health officials, everyone has a different point to pitch in and this aspect should be utilized more fully.

There should be frequent interaction between HIV positive people, university students, NGOs working in the field, development professionals, university faculty members and donor agencies that work on the issues of HIV/AIDS. This would minimize the gap between the needs and the grants and facilitate a greater communication about each other’s insights/ orientations/ perspectives.

With its diverse membership the IAA can provide a platform for meaningful dialogue.