HIV and AIDS take on a woman’s face

The feminisation of HIV and AIDS continues in full swing in the Asia-Pacific, reflected in the fact that almost 40% of new HIV cases are among women, even if the newest estimates show that there are fewer people than originally estimated to be living with the virus in the region. What is alarming for Dr Nafis Sadik, special adviser to the UN secretary-general and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, is the disproportionate rate of HIV among young married women. Marriage and fidelity seem to offer little protection from the disease and societal attitudes kept women powerless and poor, she said at the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in Colombo.

“It is time to give them (married women) a face, a voice,” said Prasada Rao, regional director for the Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS. Quoting a study by the UNDP, Rao said that in South Asia, 40% of women leave their in-laws’ homes after their husbands’ death due to AIDS, and 80% of them are denied their property rights. The soaring HIV rates among younger women was partly due to the false notion that women’s being ignorant about sex and sexuality until they get married is an asset, Sadik said. She emphasised the need for sex and AIDS education for young women as crucial to addressing the epidemic.

In countries like Thailand and Cambodia, more than 35% of new HIV cases are being reported among married women, trends that worry experts even if the latest official figures show that there are 5.4 million people — and not the original estimate of 8.3 million living with HIV in the region. Annmaree O’Keeffe of the Australian aid agency AusAID calls HIV and AIDS a justice issue, an education issue, a business issue, a women’s issue and a development issue. She said: “It is an issue that requires vision, leadership and commitment to address unpopular causes such as the rights of stigmatised and socially marginalised minorities, and where necessary to challenge social norms regarding gender and sexuality.”

“Discrimination against women, unequal power relations between men and women constitute the basis of gender inequality that fuels the feminisation of the epidemic,” said Sunila Abeysekera, executive director of Sri Lanka-based Inform, a documentation centre working on human rights in conflict and war situations. Even after three decades of commitment — mostly lip service — by governments to the protection of women’s rights — she considers the world an “extremely perilous place” for the female population.

Leaders were called upon to create enabling environments for women and to invest in female education, to give them economic opportunities, a necessary legal climate and frameworks that protect women from discrimination. “We must strengthen our resolve to create a world in which women and girls are able to live free of any form of discrimination, coercion and violence including sexual coercion and sexual violence,” said Abeysekera, who called for a coherent gender analysis, adequate resource allocation and a commitment to human rights and women’s empowerment. At the political level, she urged leaders to aim for protection of women’s rights under the law and to stem traditions and practices that make them second-class citizens. — IPS