Young women's discussion group at the Vanuatu National Youth AIDS Congress.
Photo: Li Fung/Oxf
Globally, the numbers of women living with HIV and AIDS is on the increase. In some parts of Asia and the Pacific, infection rates among women now exceed men. Three quarters of young people infected on the continent are young women aged 15-24. Poverty and gender inequality are key driving forces behind the fact that the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS disproportionately affects women.
The roles women and men play in society affect all aspects of the disease. Girls and women are made particularly vulnerable to HIV by conditions of gender inequality. Women are often less able to negotiate safe sex, suffer greater social stigma from being HIV positive, and as the principal family carers, may have added burdens if there is AIDS within the household.
Economic and social dependence on men often limits women's power to refuse sex or to negotiate the use of condoms. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, women are at least four times more vulnerable to infection than men because their social standing does now allow them to negotiate safe sex. Furthermore, inadequate access to education and employment opportunities force many women to sell or barter sex to survive.
Within families, women and girls are often hardest hit by AIDS, since the burden of care falls on them, and they are most likely to have to drop out of work or school as a result. Moreover, women's lack of inheritance rights in some societies leads to lost homes and land when a husband or father dies.
Sexual inequality endangers women's lives, and gender issues must be taken into consideration in addressing the issue of HIV and AIDS. It is essential that women’s empowerment, what is acceptable sexual behaviour and confronting attitudes that contribute to the low standing and powerlessness of women and girls must all be addressed.