On Tuesday, Rwanda joined the rest of the World to commemorate World AIDS Day. UNAIDS estimates that women comprise about half of all people living with HIV worldwide.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where the epidemic is worst, they make up an estimated 57percent of adults, and three quarters of young people living with HIV on the continent are young women aged 15-24.
Despite this alarming trend, UNAIDS highlights that women are less educated than men on HIV/AIDS transmission and how to prevent infection; yet the little they do know is often rendered useless by the discrimination and violence they face.
That women are less able than men to exercise control over their bodies and lives, is a crisis of gender inequality.
Universally, cultural expectations have encouraged men to have multiple partners, while women are expected to abstain or be faithful.
There is also a culture of silence around sexual and reproductive health. Simply by fulfilling their expected gender roles, men and women are likely to increase their risk of HIV infection. But the gender disparities go far deeper than sexual relations.
Most women do not own property or have access to financial resources and are dependent on men––husbands, fathers, brothers and sons––for support. Without resources, women are susceptible to abuse.
Violence is a threat that limits women’s ability to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. They risk their lives when they insist on protection as a result they remain in violent relationships because they have nowhere else to go.
This has dramatically increased women and girl’s vulnerability to HIV transmission in violent or forced-sex encounters.
The biologically factor also contributes. In unprotected heterosexual intercourse women are twice as likely as men to acquire HIV from an infected partner.
Economic and social dependence on men often limits women’s power to refuse sex or to negotiate the use of condoms. Even when their partners die of AIDS, they often suffer discrimination and abandonment.
In some contexts, their lower status in the family and community make it less likely to access health care including antiretroviral treatment.
According to a recent report by the National AIDS Commission, girls aged 20-24 are five times more likely to be infected with HIV than boys of the same age.
What is more disturbing is that the report also reveals that 1 out of 10 girls experience their first sexual experience with men who are 10 or more years older. Girls are less likely to reject sexual advances than women.
The marginalized women in society, such as sex workers are also at greater risk of becoming infected with HIV.
Reducing the impact of HIV requires that the needs and issues of women be addressed right from the grassroots at community level to the national level.
Reversing the underlying socio-economic factors contributing to women’s HIV risk– gender inequality, poverty, slow economic and educational opportunities, lack of legal and human rights protections – is critical for success.
Through increasing the self-confidence and self-esteem of girls, through full participation in life-skills training and other school based programmes, the HIV epidemic will be curbed.
The author is a journalist The New Times