By Lisa Anderson
WASHINGTON (TrustLaw)— Globally, young women between the ages of 15 and 24 years are twice as likely as their male counterparts to contract HIV. HIV is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. Women and girls make up 60 percent of the people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, home to two-thirds of the world’s HIV cases.
Just these few facts, provided in a recent report by the United Nations AIDS programme (UNAIDS), begin to underscore women's and girls' severe vulnerability to HIV infection and the toll it takes on their lives.
They also help explain the large number of sessions devoted to these issues at the week-long AIDS2012 conference that began in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.
In “Collaborating Across Borders to Advance the Health of Women,” a session prior to the conference’s official start, women from around the world outlined some of the areas they hope the conference will address.
These include more work on: women’s rights; the link between hormonal-based contraception and HIV infection; microbicide gels and other agents to inhibit HIV infection; female condoms; new antiretroviral therapy technology, such as vaginal rings; and greater ease of access to prevention methods and treatment.
THE UNITED STATES: NEED FOR NEW FOCUS ON WOMEN AND HIV
While new HIV infections have decreased in many parts of the world, the rate among adults in the US has not decreased in the last 20 years, averaging about 50,000 per year, according to the recent UNAIDS report and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About a quarter of those new infections are occurring among women and girls, said Dr Nancy Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women’s Health and director of the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In general, a U.S. woman tests positive for HIV every 47 minutes, Lee said, with a disproportionately high rate among black and Hispanic and Latina women. Black women are being infected at 15 times the rate of white women and 3 times the rate of Hispanic and Latina women, she said.
But, both the reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US and its particular toll on women often is unknown in the rest of the world, experts said.
“For 30 years of this epidemic, the story of women living with HIV in the U.S. has not been told globally,” said Dazon Dixon Diallo, founder and president of SisterLove, Inc. in Atlanta, Ga., the first women’s HIV/AIDS organization in the southeastern U.S.
She added that women must be educated to take advantage of new biomedical interventions, as well as to understand and practically act upon the idea that behavior and biomedical now go hand in hand.
“Once women embrace the pandemic—because we are the epidemic—we will shut the door on HIV/AIDS. You wait and see,” she said.
YOUNG WOMEN STILL AT GREAT RISK
Helena Nangombe, at the conference as the representative of the Namibian Women’s Health Network, spoke eloquently of the problems facing women and girls in Africa, particularly in Namibia.
At 26, Nangombe is a survivor of sexual abuse who has been HIV positive since she was 10. Nonetheless, she is the mother of a 7-year-old son who is HIV negative.
Nangombe pointed out that young women in Africa are more vulnerable to HIV infection because of factors including discrimination, limited rights and the absence of enforcement of laws.
Often young women are also less able to negotiate safe sex or are victims of early marriage or other forms of sexual abuse, experts said.
Access to testing and treatment is also a struggle for women and girls, she said, because of the long travel distances to reach clinics. Education also is a problem, she said, when the struggle to raise school fees competes with the need for food money.
That lack of education contributes to further victimization of women, many of whom have been sterilised or had their wombs removed because “They had no idea of what they were signing away. They had no idea of their rights,” she said.
“Don’t they deserve better? Don’t I deserve better?” she asked.