Fact sheet No 242: Women and HIV/AIDS - June 2000
Facts and figures
• 33.6 million people living with HIV/AIDS, 14.8 million of whom are women
Modes of transmission
The AIDS epidemic in women is overwhelmingly heterosexual - almost entirely so in Africa and South and South East Asia.
In other areas, a proportion of women are infected through:
• sex with a bisexual or drug injecting partner
Why are women more vulnerable to HIV infection?
• Larger mucosal surface; microlesions which can occur during intercourse may be entry points for the virus; very young women even more vulnerable in this respect.
• Financial or material dependence on men means that women cannot control when, with whom and in what circumstances they have sex
Socially and culturally
• Women are not expected to discuss or make decisions about sexuality
Why must the response be gender-based?
Three main reasons:
1. Unequal gender (social, economic, and power) relations are driving the epidemic
They are highly vulnerable to infection
3. Sex differences in pathology. Clinical management, for too long based on research undertaken on men, must be tailored to women’s particular symptomatology, disease progression, HIV related illnesses etc.
What will make a difference?
Physical and material independence and security for women which is independent of the “protection” of a man or men
• Women must be empowered so that they are able to control their own lives and in particular their sexual relations
This implies a profound shift in social and economic power relations between men and women. It cannot be achieved tomorrow but action must start today, through:
• Increased educational and employment opportunities for girls and women
• Public education campaigns on the harmful - fatal, in the case of AIDS - effects of unequal gender relations.
Microbicides: our best hope
The development of a prevention method which is cheap, safe and effective and under women’s control, is essential.
• In the absence of a vaccine, this is a method likely to have an immediate and significant impact on the alarming rate of new infections in women.
• A massive investment in international research and development of a microbicide is required.
• An issue which must be dealt with is the desire for children. A microbicide for preventing both pregnancy and STIs including HIV (dual protection), and a microbicide which is not also a spermicide must be developed.
Proven effective interventions
There are a number of proven interventions (see key interventions) which together, comprise key strategies to control the spread of the epidemic. They are particularly important for women.
Treatment and prevention of sexually transmissible infections:
• women are more vulnerable to STIs; the consequences are more serious
Women and children are the chief recipients of transfusions; women - during and after delivery. The following action is required:
• Antenatal care and adequate nutrition to reduce some of the need for transfusion
Education for prevention including the use of condoms
Condoms, male and female, are currently the only protection methods available.
They need to be more widely accepted, available and used.
• Education to promote their use
It has been shown that even in the most favourable circumstances, condom use (male and female) is low. The acceptability of these methods remains problematic. The female condom is if anything more cumbersome than the male condom and considerably more expensive. Furthermore, women cannot control their use. Impact will continue to be low if people’s preferences and therefore their actual use of methods, are not given due attention.
Women as carers
• Women are responsible for the health care of all family members.
Making men more responsible
• Little attention has been paid to men’s participation in efforts to protect women
For further information, journalists can contact:
WHO Press Spokesperson and Coordinator, Spokesperson’s Office, WHO HQ, Geneva, Switzerland/Tel +41 22 791 4458/2599/Fax +41 22 791 4858/e-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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