“Machismo is deadly,” said Adela Bonilla, head of an organization in Chiapas that offers support to women infected with HIV. In this Mexican state, like in other rural areas in the country, women have few if any opportunities to get an education and a job, and thus become financially independent. They are forced to rely on men who often deceive and cheat on them, while they, as wives, are expected to remain faithful. This sexist behavior is nothing new in Mexico, but perhaps what some don’t realize is the effect it’s had on female health as men refuse to use condoms, and women, fully dependent on their partners, are left without a choice.

Selfish, misogynist and uninformed acts have led to many women contracting HIV from their husbands and then being forced to live with the social stigma accompanied with a disease viewed as a result of sexual deviance. On top of this, sexual education campaigns are thwarted due to discrimination and conservatism prevalent in rural Mexico, areas that suffers the most from this combination of machismo and vulnerability to viruses.

The Atlantic offers some statistics about the spread of HIV in Mexico, and discusses how gender roles in Chiapas have helped propagate the disease:

The state of Chiapas is the poorest in Mexico. It is home to a highly indigenous, dispersed, and rural population. In 2012, 75 percent of residents lived in poverty. The state also trails the nation in several indicators of public health. For every 100,000 residents, Chiapas has a mere 93 doctors and 45 hospital beds, the lowest rates in Mexico. The lack of medical infrastructure in the state has particularly affected women, leading to high rates of maternal death and the spread of infectious disease, such as HIV.

The first case of HIV in Mexico was recorded in the year 1983, two years after the United States recorded its first instance of the virus. In 2012, 0.3 percent of the total Mexican population was living with HIV as compared to 0.6 percent in the U.S. In Mexico, as in the U.S., the epidemic is concentrated among men, who represent 82 percent of the documented cases in the republic. Nationwide, 54 percent of all HIV cases were transmitted through homosexual or bisexual behavior. By comparison, 61 percent of all new HIV cases in the U.S. are among gay and bisexual men.

But in rural Chiapas, HIV has a different face. Last year it was estimated that 60 percent of all cases in the state were contracted through heterosexual activity. Nationwide, women represent 18 percent of HIV cases. In Chiapas, that number jumps to 27 percent.

“AIDS has completely changed the way we think about love, fidelity, and marriage,” said Martha Figueroa Mier, director of the San Cristóbal Women’s Collective. The collective has been operating for 24 years, primarily on cases of domestic abuse and rape. “Whatever problem women have,” she said, “when they come to us our advice is a) file a police report, but only if you want to, and b) definitely take an HIV test.”

In the words of Jennifer Hirsch, professor of sociomedical sciences at Colombia University, in rural Mexico “women are infected by the very people with whom they are supposed to be having sex—indeed, according to social convention in Mexico, the only people with whom they are ever supposed to have sex.” Male infidelity in Mexico does not represent any sort of major social transgression, a statement that is not true for women. Gender ideologies have created relationships of power where decisions about the female body, such as whether or not to use a condom, are commonly in the hands of men. It is a patriarchal set of norms, beliefs, and actions that make women particularly vulnerable to infection.

Many people keep their disease a secret, but some have used their illness to promote the importance of sexual education and help counsel others who have not reached the same sense of acceptance. Several nongovernmental organizations have been started by people who believe in destigmatizing HIV as well as helping infected victims cope with their everyday lives. But according to Ronaldo Tinoco Ojanguren, the director of one such NGO, in a state where lawmakers have approved legislation that would ban children born with HIV from public schools, there’s only so much that can be done without government assistance. “In Chiapas, we are now accustomed to poverty. We don’t need interventions, we need a fundamental change to the system,” Tinoco Ojanguren said. And, I would add, a revision of the gender ideologies that endanger women’s lives in more ways than one.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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