UN focuses on HIV/AIDS on International Women's Day

Posted: 9 March 2004

The United Nations marked International Women's Day by homing in on the link between HIV/AIDS and gender inequality. A UNAIDS report drew attention to the high infection rates among Asian women while the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that women are on track to become the majority of HIV/AIDS sufferers worldwide.

HIV infection rates among Asian women have leaped 10 per cent in the last two years and are nearing rates among men, according to the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Deputy Executive Director Kathleen Cravero.

Marriage is proving a high-risk factor as a "culture of silence" prohibits women from protesting their husbands' extramarital affairs, she said. In Thailand,40 per cent of new infections are conveyed between spouses, 90 per cent of them from husband to wife.

Meanwhile, Annan warned that globally, women now represent half of all new HIV infections. Among people under age 24, girls and young women account for nearly two-thirds of HIV sufferers. In sub-Saharan Africa, women represented 58 per cent of those infected by the end of 2003. Worldwide, half of the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS are women.

"If these rates of infection continue, women will soon become the majority of the global total of people infected," Annan said.

Empowerment call

The secretary general cited poverty, sexual violence and a lack of empowerment to insist on condom use as culprits. The World Health Organization echoed Annan, saying financial dependence on men, sexual abuse and culturally acceptable promiscuity among men left women more vulnerable to the disease.

These and other factors render the "ABC" approach - abstain, be faithful and use condoms - too simplistic to work on its own, UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Thoraya Obaid said. Curbing the toll of AIDS on women "means taking stronger action against rape and gender-based violence," she said. "It means speaking out against a system in some parts of the world in which women and girls can be inherited, and women themselves cannot inherit property. And it means ensuring universal access to reproductive health information and services."

UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer warned that the rapid escalation of infections among women - from 38 per cent 10 years ago to 50 per cent today - put women at the "epicentre" of the epidemic. The disproportionate burden AIDS places on women exacerbates the crisis, Heyzer said.

"The social impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls is greater - they are the ones who assume the burden of care when family members are affected by the disease, putting severe constraints on their access to education, employment, food cultivation, and often treatment," Heyzer said, adding that rape and women's inability to refuse unwanted sex are "serious factors" in the epidemic's spread.

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