HIV and Women

HIV and Women

Women in East Asia are contracting HIV at a faster rate than in the rest of the world, and there's a worrying new trend in Thailand: men who have visited prostitutes are increasingly passing on the infection to their wives, the United Nations says. In many parts of the world, but particularly in Asia, more women than men are getting the disease because it has spread beyond the brothels where most infections occurred 12 years ago, said the latest global HIV status report published recently. Women have also seen higher rates of infection than men because it is easier for them to get HIV - the virus that causes AIDS - through heterosexual intercourse. Some 2.3 million out of the 8.2 million people currently living with HIV in Asia are women - an increase of 56 per cent since 2002. Nearly 50 per cent of the 39.4 million people infected with HIV worldwide are women, according to the report. The epidemic has claimed about 540,000 lives in Asia so far in 2004. In Thailand, about 90 per cent of HIV transmission 12 years ago was between prostitutes and their clients. But now, about half of all infections are occurring in the wives of men who visit prostitutes.

Most new HIV infections in Asia occur when men buy sex, a practice that an estimated 5 to 10 per cent of men in the region - many of them married or in steady relationships - engage in, said the report, citing household surveys in several countries. The disease has spread through Asian countries at various speeds and levels of severity. While national infection rates remain lower than in other parts of the world, particularly Africa, the large populations of many Asian countries mean that vast numbers of people are stricken with the illness. While countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand were hit early the epidemic, others - including Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam and China - are only beginning to see the disease spread rapidly and must launch efforts to stop it. AIDS has now been detected in all parts of China, spreading mainly through intravenous drug use and prostitution. It is also frequently transmitted sexually from injecting drug users to their partners in China. In Myanmar, a large percentage of injecting drug users have gotten HIV, with as many as 78 per cent testing positive for the virus in some areas of the military-ruled country last year. In India's Tamil Nadu state, about half of sex workers have been found to be infected with HIV. But Bangladesh, East Timor, Laos, Pakistan and the Philippines, among some other Asian nations, have particularly low infection rates and still have the opportunity to thwart serious outbreaks, the report said.

The global battle against HIV will ultimately fail unless serious progress is made on women's rights in the developing world, the United Nations says. The pandemic is increasingly taking on a feminine face as it enters its globalization phase. The lack of women's equality - from poverty and stunted education to rape and denial of women's inheritance and property rights - is a major obstacle to victory over the virus, according to the latest global HIV status report published on November 23. AIDS has to be the catalyst for women's rights in the developing world, UNAIDS chief Dr. Peter Piot told The Associated Press. "There was reason enough before AIDS, but now the link between the whole gender inequality and death has never been so direct as with AIDS," Piot said. "If AIDS is not enough to shift the agenda for women, then what is enough?" "It's time now for the women's movement and the AIDS movement to find each other, and that has not happened yet," Piot said. "Ultimately, without putting women at the heart of the response to AIDS, I don't think we will be able to control this epidemic." Violence against women is a worldwide scourge, but it is feeding the HIV epidemics in the developing world, where women and girls often don't have the power to say no to sex or to insist on condom use. For millions of other women, sex is their only currency. "The fact that the balance of power in many relationships is tilted in favor of men can have life-or-death implications," concluded the report by UNAIDS. "These factors are not easily dislodged or altered, but until they are, efforts to contain and reverse the AIDS epidemic are unlikely to achieve sustained success."

Nearly 50 per cent of the 39.4 million people infected with HIV worldwide are women. In regions where the epidemic is mature, more women are infected than men, and in countries where epidemics are just beginning, new infections among women outnumber those among men and the gap continues to widen. East Asia experienced the sharpest increase in the number of women infected with HIV in the past two years - 56 per cent. Eastern Europe and Central Asia come next, with infections among women rising 48 per cent in the past two years. In the Caribbean, which is the second worst hit area of the world after sub-Saharan Africa, young women are twice as likely as men their age to become infected. Part of the reason for the rapid increase is that it is physically easier for women to get HIV through intercourse than it is for men to get it from women. However, in many parts of the world, especially in Asia, more women than men are now getting the disease because the virus has escaped the confines of brothels.

Twelve years ago, about 90 per cent of HIV transmission in Thailand was occurring between prostitutes and their clients. But now, about half of all infections are occurring in the wives of men who visit prostitutes. In many parts of the world, stressing marriage and long-term monogamous relationships does not protect women from AIDS because they are unable to control whether they have sex. The approach - favoured by the American anti-AIDS package - also could backfire in areas where being married actually increases the risk of contracting HIV, research has found.

One study conducted in several areas of Kenya and Zambia found that among teenage girls, HIV infection levels were 10 per cent higher for married girls than for those who were sexually active but not married. Similar findings have been reported in Uganda. Married women in some African countries are in more danger of HIV than unmarried ones because young women often marry men much older than themselves - for financial security - and these men are more likely to have had other partners and thus been exposed to HIV, the report found.

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