Violence Contributing To Vast Growth in HIV/AIDS Among Women Worldwide, Report Finds

A major new report released jointly by the United Nations and the World Health Organization finds that the number of women living with HIV has risen in most regions of the world over the past two years. AIDS Epidemic Update 2004 finds that women now account for nearly half of the 37.2 million people age 15 to 49 around the world who are infected with HIV.

The violence that women and girls experience is a major cause of the growing infection rate. This violence – which includes rape, sexual slavery, trafficking, “transactional” and intergenerational sex, and much more – denies women control over their sexual relations. As a result, traditional prevention strategies that focus on education about safe sex will not stem the epidemic unless women and girls have the power to refuse sex and insist that condoms be used. Millions do not have that power.

“Strategies to address gender inequities are urgently needed if we want a realistic chance at turning back the epidemic,” said UN Programme on HIV/AIDS Executive Director Dr. Peter Piot. “Concrete action is necessary to prevent violence against women, and ensure access to property and inheritance rights, basic education and employment opportunities for women and girls.” Piot added that the link between gender inequality and death from AIDS is direct, and urged the women’s and AIDS movements to unite.

Findings

In total, 39.4 million people are infected with HIV and 2.2 million of them are children. AIDS will cause 3.1 million deaths in 2004, claiming 2.6 million adult victims and 510,000 child victims. Nearly five million people will be infected with HIV this year.

In North America, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among African American women age 35 to 44, who are often infected because their male partners do not disclose high-risk sexual behavior. And while African American and Hispanic women represent less than one-quarter of women in the U.S., they accounted for 80 percent of AIDS cases reported among women in the year 2000.

The feminization of the disease in the last two years is particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, where more than half of those infected with HIV are women age 15 to 24. Lack of education and power are among the reasons. In Cameroon, Lesotho, Mali, Senegal and Vietnam, two-thirds or more of women age 15 to 24 could not name three HIV prevention methods in recent surveys. And a study in Zambia found that just eleven percent of women believed they had the right to ask their husbands to use condoms, even when their husbands were unfaithful and HIV-positive.

Recommendations

“Violence against women is a worldwide scourge, and a massive human rights and public health challenge,” AIDS Epidemic Update 2004 says. “It also increases women’s vulnerability to HIV infection. Research has confirmed a strong correlation between sexual and other forms of abuse against women and women’s chances of being HIV-infected. In addition, the fear of violence – not just from partners but from the wider community – prevents many women from accessing HIV information, from getting tested and seeking treatment, even when they strongly suspect they have been infected… If HIV-prevention activities are to succeed, they need to occur alongside other efforts that address and reduce violence against women and girls.” The report recommends that men and boys play a greater role as partners in creating social change.

It urges greater investment in microbicide research and development, to give women a tool they can control. Women are more susceptible to HIV than men; male-to-female HIV transmission during sex is about twice as likely to occur as female-to-male transmission. The report notes that, if one in five women in 73 low-income countries used microbicides, 2.5 million new infections could potentially be averted over three years.

AIDS Epidemic Update 2004 recommends a seven part agenda: preventing HIV infection among adolescent girls; reducing violence against women; protecting the property and inheritance rights of women and girls; ensuring equal access by women and girls to care and treatment; supporting improved community-based care with a special focus on women and girls; promoting access to new prevention options including female condoms and microbicides; and supporting ongoing efforts towards universal education for girls.

AIDS Epidemic Update 2004 is available online at www.unaids.org/wad2004/report_pdf.html and more information on the UN’s Global Coalition on Women and AIDS is available at womenandaids.unaids.org

[Browse more features]