In societies most affected by HIV/AIDS, it is a country’s military institutions, and the men and women who serve in them, that are often hardest hit. The rate of HIV infection is often much higher in the armed forces than it is in the rest of the population.
In many African countries, including South Africa, the defence forces are not merely the most vulnerable to HIV infection; they are also the most likely to spread the infection. High rates of HIV infection are often found in civilian populations living near military bases or are associated with the movements of soldiers. In navy ports and garrisons far from towns, soldiers often have a limited choice of partners. Many men from the same company are likely to have sex with the same women over a period of time; when that company is replaced, the new soldiers have intercourse with the same women. It is also highly likely that many of these troops will have regular contact with sex workers. Soldiers are generally posted away from their families and partners, increasing the likelihood that they may seek out sexual partners locally.
In this situation, even if only a small number of soldiers or their partners have HIV at the beginning, unprotected sex and sharing of partners will soon cause HIV to spread. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence of an association between sexual violence, HIV transmission and military forces. The use of rape as a weapon of war has been well documented. But the sexual abuse of host communities by military peacekeeping operations has also been reported in recent years.
In the military, the ethos of risk-taking can further intensify the negative effects of traditional gender norms. In South Africa, as in the rest of the world, prevailing gender roles and expectations drive the spread of HIV, especially in traditional male-oriented structures such as the military. These gender roles and expectations grant men the power to initiate and dictate the terms of sex, make it extremely difficult for women to protect themselves from HIV, and tacitly support men’s violence against women, behaviours that further exacerbate the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Results of a research study conducted by the SANDF focusing on violence against women within the Department of Defence, clearly showed the significance of gender stereotypes and patriarchal beliefs and behaviour in precipitating violence against women, compromising their health as well as their decision-making ability. Informed by this research and the recognition of the importance of addressing gender issues in HIV/AIDS work within the military, the collaborating partners worked with the SANDF to develop the Gender Equity Programme (GEP).