(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Lesbians and HIV - low risk is not no risk

[Africa] Being lesbian or gay in Africa.
Triangle Project

Women who sleep with women (WSW) are not at risk of HIV transmission – or are they? AIDS advocates warn that it is time for a wake-up call about who is and is not at risk.



HIV prevention among WSW and lesbian women remains off the prevention agenda, said Beverley Palesa Ditsie, a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand.



"When it comes to same-sex relationships other than male-to-male, [HIV] transmission is something we think we don't have to talk about," she commented at the launch of a new book on same-sex sexuality and HIV, published by the Human Sciences Research Council.



Zethu Matebeni, a fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), who spent three years studying Johannesburg's black lesbian community, agreed that myths about the risk of female-to-female transmission were not being adequately addressed..



Rape as punishment



No data exists on HIV prevalence among lesbian women or WSW globally or in South Africa, but limited research by the gay and lesbian organization, OUT, indicated that the high rates of HIV in the WSW interviewed could be attributed mainly to rape, transactional sex and sexual violence.



Lesbian women in South Africa are being raped by men who believe it will "cure" them of their sexual orientation; women in townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town report a rising tide of brutal homophobic attacks, murders, and the widespread use of "corrective" rape as a form of punishment, notes a report published earlier this year by the international NGO, ActionAid.



According to OUT's research, only about 40 percent of WSW knew their HIV status, which often carried the same burden of stigma and silence it would in any relationship, Matebeni told IRIN/PlusNews. "Some women say it makes your partners think you have been sleeping around when it's not the case."



She said negotiating safe sex could be difficult for women even in loving, consensual relationships. It was also difficult to access barrier methods like finger condoms or dental dams - thin squares of latex rubber placed over the vagina or anus during oral sex to prevent sexually transmitted infections.



"Often, we don't know how to talk about safer sex because there aren't protection methods and, of the ones that are out there, many of them are extremely unpleasant – they make you feel ugly, and feeling beautiful is very important in sex."



Matebeni called for more attention to the HIV-prevention needs of women in same-sex relationships.



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