In Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, Frances Beale draws attention to the plight of the African-American woman by highlighting a list of injustices she has suffered. The things she said about economic disparities with respect to gender reminded me of another reading I had in my Medical Anthropology class, in which it was demonstrated that gender also plays a role in health disparities around the globe. We were assigned to read Culture, Poverty, and HIV Transmission: The Case of Rural Haiti, a chapter from the book Infections and Inequalities by Dr. Paul Farmer.

In the passage, Dr. Farmer analyzes the patterns of HIV transmission in the rural village of Do Kay. Prior to 1956, the people of the village were relatively prosperous because of the various crops they could grow on the fertile banks of a nearby river. However, the construction of a hydroelectric dam downstream of the village flooded the banks of the river, forcing thousands of families out of the area with little or no compensation for their loss. With no land to cultivate, the younger generations began to try their luck getting jobs in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti and a hub of HIV/AIDS distribution.  It was then that the transmission of HIV into the village began.

Poor, hungry, and uneducated young women often went to the city to find jobs as domestic workers, and while they were there, they entered into short-lived sexual relationships with men who were slightly more financially stable, like truck drivers and soldiers. In terms of economics, it is clear that this would be considered a good move. Unfortunately for the women, these men often had unprotected sex with multiple partners. After the relationships dissolved, the women returned home with a little bit of money and asymptomatic HIV infections, which inevitably got passed on to their future partners and children.

The ability of these young women to protect themselves from HIV infection was and is greatly diminished by the gender imbalance that has been perpetuated irrespective of the “when” and “where” of the societies in which it has been observed. In the doubly weakened role of their relationships, it would be extremely difficult for these rural women to persuade their partners to use condoms. Worse still, the condoms that everyone should have been using may have been scarce and expensive in impoverished Haiti. The surprising and saddening observations of Dr. Farmer’s study serve as a vivid reminder of how the far-reaching power of sexism has a myriad of complex and unintended effects. 

--Sheri Balogun

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