HIV in Women
About 19 million women are infected with HIV, accounting for nearly half the global total. And the figure is rising particularly in central and eastern Asia and Eastern Europe. Women are now beginning to bear the brunt of the disease both physically and socially, in terms of caring for family members living with HIV and AIDS.
In the early days of the epidemic the number of men living with the disease far outnumbered the number of infected women.
Over the past few years the number of infections among women in East Asia has risen by a staggering 56%. And in sub-Saharan Africa 60% of those living with HIV are women. The virus is spreading mainly through heterosexual sex.
Why are Women Being Largely Affected?
So why is this happening? Physiologically women are more susceptible to the virus, particularly during heterosexual sex thanks to the exposure of vaginal fluid to infected semen. In many parts of the world women have to use sex in exchange for money, accommodation or food. It’s called “transactional sex” and is common in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This sexual intercourse is usually with older men and almost always without a condom.
In many parts of the world, both developed and developing, being married doesn’t protect a woman from HIV. Many women don’t feel they have the right to ask their partner to wear a condom. The result could be forced sex or other forms of domestic violence. For many young girls in developing and war torn countries, violence is often their first taste of sex. In sub-Saharan Africa civil war has led to women being raped and babies are being raped because some men believe that having sex with a child can rid them of the HIV virus.
Young girls from poverty stricken homes are being forced onto the streets and sold into slavery. They have sex against their will, usually with older men who’ve had unprotected sex with many partners.
Many HIV infected women in developing countries have difficulty accessing good quality healthcare and chances are they’re looking after relatives with HIV as well. They have very little chance of gaining a good education or at some financial independence through employment.
In Tanzania women spend 50% less time doing farm work while their husbands are ill with HIV. And in Vietnam 75% of all carers of people with HIV are women.
In developing countries such as those within sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a major stigma attached to women undergoing HIV tests. These women can face violence and death if the test proves positive.
Global Coalition on Women and AIDS
UNAIDS (the United Nations’ group for HIV/AIDS) has now spearheaded a Global Coalition on Women and AIDS to educate and resource countries where the infection among women is on the rise. UNAIDS executive director, Dr Peter Piot, says that strategies to address the gender imbalance are urgently needed if “we want a realistic chance at turning back the epidemic.”
He stresses: “Concrete action is needed to prevent violence against women and ensure access to basic education and employment rights for women and girls.”
UNAIDS is ploughing money into violence protection, education and employment opportunities for girls and women in the most vulnerable areas. Cooperative day care can help women with their workload as can labor sharing and income generating projects. Access to good quality healthcare and in particular antiretroviral drugs is particularly important.