Background Gender-based violence, and gender inequality more broadly, has been found to be associated with increased risk of sexually transmitted infections (STI) including HIV among women and girls as well as among key vulnerable groups such as sex workers. This paper presents the evidence of the increased risk of STI and HIV associated with gender-based violence; and looks at potential pathways by which gender-based violence and STI and HIV are linked.
Methods A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies that measure the association between intimate partner violence and STI and HIV was conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and WHO as part of work feeding into the Global Burden of Disease Study estimates on violence against women and its health impacts. Another systematic review of studies that measure association between violence against sex workers and STI and HIV was also conducted by the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and WHO. Other studies and literature were reviewed to identify potential pathways to explain the links between gender-based violence and HIV.
Results The results of the systematic review show that best estimate of association between physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence and HIV was an odds ratio (OR) of 1.52 (95% CI = 1.03 to 2.23) for HIV, from studies from generalized and concentrated HIV epidemics and slightly higher for syphilis, chlamydia or gonorrhea. . These studies, however, are mainly cross sectional population-based surveys among women in the general population. The systematic review of violence against sex workers shows that sex workers from India and US who experience sexual violence have between 2 and 3-fold increased risk of HIV sero-positivity. Sex workers who experience any form of physical or sexual violence by any perpetrator in studies from India (Karnataka), Thailand, USA (San Francico) also showed increased risk of STI sero-positivity. Studies suggest 4 potential pathways linking gender-based violence and STI/HIV. First, sexual violence can be directly associated with increased STI and HIV transmission. There are also several indirect mechanisms; these include a history of violence in childhood or adolescence being linked to increased sexual risk taking later; and difficulties in negotiation of condom use with the partner. Also, men who perpetrate violence are also more likely to engage in sexual risk taking. Third, fear of violence can prevent women and sex workers from seeking or accessing HIV information and services. Lastly, violence can be an outcome of diagnosis and disclosure of HIV status.
Conclusion Interventions to address the HIV epidemic among women and among sex workers need to address violence as a risk factor. In each setting, interventions need to be based on an understanding of the potential pathways that link violence against women and sex workers to STI and HIV infection. HIV prevention, treatment, and care programmes for women and for sex workers can integrate violence prevention into their risk-reduction counselling and communication, work with men and boys to promote gender equality and reduce violence perpetration, empower women, girls and sex workers, address harmful gender norms that perpetuate the acceptability of violence, and address the harmful use of alcohol. Laws and policies that criminalize sex workers and that perpetuate gender-based discrimination against women and girls also need to be addressed.