AIDS Pandemic Stalks Women

At least 76 percent of young people aged between 15 and 24 living with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are female, according to a global report released yesterday. The report says 57 percent of adults living with AIDS in the region are women.

This means that young women are about three times more vulnerable to HIV infection than their male counterparts. The UN AIDS study attributes the trend to sexual violence against women and girls, unequal access to information, especially between young women and men, gender-power relations and cultural norms like wife inheritance.

The trend has also been linked to the "sugar daddy" syndrome, in which young women have sex with older men for money and other material favors.

"These men are more likely to be infected than younger men and relationships with them are more of violence and exploitation," said Ms. Bella Matabanadzo of the UN Secretary-General's task force on women, girls and AIDS in Southern Africa.

For instance, in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, more than a third of girls aged between 15-19 years said they lost their virginity as a result of force, coercion or trickery. Matabanadzo said in some communities, widows who refused to be inherited were "cleansed sexually," exposing them to HIV infection.

She narrated the tribulations of women whose husbands had died of AIDS, at the hands of relatives. In many cases, they become destitute when the man's relatives take away all the property and even deny them access to their land. Her report was based on studies carried out in nine countries in southern Africa.

The UN calls for strategies that will ensure women have access to education, prevention information and facilities and treatment, and are guaranteed their right to own property.

"The plight of women and children in the face of AIDS underlines the need for realistic strategies that address the interplay between inequality and HIV.

"Focusing programmes on persuading girls to abstain from sex until marriage are of little help to many young women. In some places, the main HIV risk factor for a woman is the fact that she is faithful to a husband with previous or current other sex partners," says the report.

The report notes that the fact that the balance of power in many relationships is tilted in favor of men can have life-or-death implications. Women and girls often lack the power to abstain from sex or insist on condom use – even when they suspect that the man has had other sexual partners and might be infected with HIV.

Unfortunately, a female-controlled prevention method is not yet widely available. Female condoms still require some degree of negotiation and male cooperation and they are significantly more expensive than male condoms. Microbicides, which have anti-HIV activity and can come in form of gels, creams and suppositories, hold out much promise for female-controlled prevention. But these are still under study.

The report also notes that men tend to have better access to AIDS care and treatment. Access to voluntary counseling and testing still poses a significant challenge for girls and women who do not seek reproduction health services, as well as for men who generally are less likely to use health facilities than women.

"As treatment programmes are expanded globally, there is a justifiable concern that many women may miss out on opportunities to receive treatment because they fear that if they discover they are HIV-positive, their partners will become aware of their HIV status.

This article originally appeared in the East African Standard.

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