For years now, women’s groups in Southern Africa have campaigned tirelessly to ensure that the Southern African Development Community adopt the Protocol on Gender and Development. Yesterday, the SADC finally took that historic step. Member states will be obliged to amend their laws to ensure equal rights for women across a wide range of issues, from provisions that require member states to enshrine equality in their constitutions, to firm commitments to reduce maternal mortality by 75 per cent. But while that’s a cause for celebration, the Protocol still does not refer explicitly to domestic violence, and it still doesn’t oblige states to introduce legal provisions that criminalise marital rape.

Women's groups face huge hurdles to make that happen.

While a few SADC countries already have provisions in their legal frameworks to that effect, in a number of other Southern African countries, women’s groups are being told, again and again, by policy makers and traditional leaders, that it would be difficult to convince the “ordinary man on the street” that having sex with his “lawfully wedded” wife can ever be rape, and a crime. SADC leaders, who in the same Protocol make commitments to stepping up HIV prevention and treatment, need to understand that the effects of domestic violence, including marital rape, can seriously undermine any efforts to combat the pandemic.

On the ground, the evidence is plain. When I interviewed women in Zambia last year, it became clear very quickly that victims of domestic violence, including marital rape, are at increased risk of HIV infection and their ability to get effective HIV treatment is drastically undermined. The Zambian women I met told me that domestic violence at the hands of their husbands and intimate partners and their fear of such violence had a direct, harmful impact on their ability to start and continue using HIV treatment.

One woman, who hid her HIV status and medication to avoid violence at the hands of her husband, told me: “Sometimes I miss a dose [of antiretroviral treatment] when my husband comes back at six o’clock, drunk, closes the door and says, ‘Today you are going to freak out.' He locks [me] in, he beats me up and locks me out of the house …. As a result of that I miss doses sometimes. I feel very bad. I don’t even feel like taking the medicine.”

This stark picture shows exactly how a lack of commitment to fighting domestic violence, marital rape and gender inequality could make fighting the HIV pandemic harder – and could cost SADC countries universal access to HIV prevention and treatment. This is why women’s groups must continue to press governments to do more to combat domestic violence, until the idea that marital rape is a contradiction in terms becomes a thing of the past.

Dr Nada Ali is a researcher in the Women's Rights division of Human Rights Watch