Nearly half of the half of the people in the world that are HIV positive are women. Most of these women were infected through heterosexual sex. Of the 15-24 year olds who are HIV positive, 60% are women. In sub-Saharan Africa – 57% of adults that are HIV positive are women.
Why are so many women disproportionately infected with HIV?
One reason is that women are more physiologically vulnerable to HIV. In heterosexual sex – women are 2 times more likely to be infected with HIV from men compared to men getting it from women.
The other big reason is that in many societies women are not valued as equal citizens. Women have less access to education, jobs, health care, land and inheritance in many parts of the world compared to men. This leads of higher rates of poverty among women. But worst of all it leads to women not being able to protect themselves from infection. Many women cannot choose who they marry or have control over their sexual partners. They cannot not insist that men use condoms. Many are victims of rape and other sexual crimes. In some places in Africa – where 2/3 of the world’s HIV positive people live – it is believed by many men that having sex with a virgin can cure them of an HIV infection.
And even for women who are married – in some parts of the world married men routinely have extramarital sex, get infected with HIV, then come home and infect their wives.
Its hard to imagine how difficult life is for many of these women. If my husband cheated on me, I could leave him. I might have some financial difficulties for a while, but I have a good education and could manage on my own if needed. And if he was HIV positive – for any reason – I could insist that he use a condom. These women can’t. They can’t leave a man who cheats on them – they would have no way to support themselves or their children if they did. And women don’t have enough power in many places to insist on men using condoms, whether married or not.
So what can be done to improve the situation for women? Obviously, better educational opportunities are needed. That won’t help the women who are already infected or become infected in the near future. Equal rights for women are ultimately needed also, but again won’t happen soon enough to help most. There are also many people trying to create a microbicide gel or cream that could be applied vaginally and kill HIV – but that might be five or more years away yet.
What can be done now? Anything? Or is it too late?
For more information about women and HIV, Amnesty International has a good, comprehensive article: Women, HIV/AIDS and human rights
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