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Women are key to reversing AIDS epidemic

In order to stop the AIDS epidemic, women must be educated, encouraged to own property and given power to stand up to men, experts said on Wednesday.
/ Source: Reuters

Any effort to battle the AIDS epidemic must focus on changing the fate of women by educating them, helping them own property and giving them the power to stand up to men, experts said on Wednesday.

Women make up nearly 60 percent of all people infected with the AIDS virus in Africa, the continent hardest-hit by the deadly virus.

“Of the 14,000 people newly infected with HIV every single day, nearly half of them are women,” said Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women.

“In ... the United States, startlingly, AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 25 to 34,” Gupta told a news conference.

Groups fighting HIV and AIDS, such as the United Nations’ UNAIDS program and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, have focused on an approach called A,B,C -- for abstinence, be faithful and use condoms.

They also distribute drugs that can help control the virus, although there is no cure and no vaccine yet.

The ICRW, UNAIDS and other groups said this needs to be expanded to include literacy and empowerment programs for women and girls, changes in laws that keep women from owning property and entering politics, and other efforts.

This is because while men are driving the AIDS epidemic to a large degree, women become the victims.

“Millions of women became infected while monogamous and faithful, so focusing solely on personal behavior and risk absolutely does not go far enough,” Gupta said.

“Abstinence is not an option in reality when you are abused and when you are raped and also in marriage,” added UNAIDS head Dr. Peter Piot.

“In Thailand today, 50 percent of the women who are infected with HIV have only one sex partner and that is her husband,” he said. “The simple truth is that empowering women and girls to protect themselves and their families from AIDS is key to turning the tide.”

Big donors and grassroots efforts
Big countries donating money to fight AIDS should focus on women, but women’s rights groups, community organizations and others also have an important role to play, the experts said.

For instance, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which finances groups that come up with effective proposals, would welcome initiatives aimed at women, said the fund’s head Dr. Richard Feachem.

“We are getting proposals from women’s organizations,” Feachem told Reuters. “We want to get more of those applications.”

The U.S. PEPFAR program could easily fund women’s programs, Piot and Gupta suggested. “It doesn’t need a new mandate to do that,” said Gupta. “We need a big push on girls’ education.”

PEPFAR is five-year, $15 billion, plan focused on 15 countries, mostly in Africa but including Haiti and Vietnam.

From the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, first identified 20 years ago, experts have noted that women in many societies, including the United States, have little power to protect themselves from the disease.

Wives often cannot refuse husbands who demand unprotected sex and young girls are often married off to older, sexually experienced men.

“Culture is not immutable,” Gupta said. “You have seen that here in the United States. I believe it is possible in the developing world, as well.”

Woman-controlled methods such as a microbicide, a cream or gel that could be used privately to protect against sexual transmission of the virus, must get more funding, Gupta said, noting that 60 potential microbicides are in development, but only four are currently in trials in people.