“We all agree that the face of HIV and AIDS is increasingly women and young,” said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, in a recent speech. As the epidemic continues to grow, Obaid is joined by many in noting that it is women who are increasingly becoming the hardest hit by the disease.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently posed the question, “Why are women more vulnerable to infection? Why is that so, even where they are not the ones with the most sexual partners outside marriage, nor more likely than men to be injecting drug users?” Answering these questions involves taking a hard look at many of the underlying ideas of inequality that affect women worldwide.
To understand why this is true, one must examine the complex social, political and economic factors affecting both women at risk for AIDS and their communities. The U.N. AIDS report states that “at the end of 2004, 39.4 million people around the world were living with HIV,” with a large number of those infected being women.
This fact is not something isolated in developing nations. In 1996, researchers Margaret Weeks, Merrill Singer and others reported that “AIDS is now the leading cause of death among women and men between the ages of 25 to 44 in African-American and Latino communities in the U.S.”
Addressing the issue of AIDS and women is not an easy task, but rather one that involves addressing issues of inequality, exploitation and discrimination both toward and within communities.
As director of USAIDS, Desmond Johns noted in a press release, “The least developed countries have heightened vulnerability to AIDS because of poverty and gender inequality.” Indeed, he noted, the developing “are faced with a double challenge: heavy debt burden and HIV/AIDS.”
As people in communities or nations face severe poverty or job loss, women are often on the losing end. Loss of jobs or economic strife seem to serve to disempower women, which many argue is a contributor to the increase in the disease.
Political situations also appear to have a strong impact on the HIV/AIDS epidemic for women. Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently noted at the Beijing conference that women appeared to be increasingly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS infection because “states had failed to eradicate widespread gender inequality, resulting in the denial of women’s human rights.”
Annan pointed out that education for many women is severely limited in many places — again, something that serves to keep women from being on an equal playing field in economic and political realms, since they lack the education to be regarded as full participants in these spheres.
Discrimination against women in the form of restriction of education also serves to keep women away from valuable health information that might teach them how to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS.
While education is an invaluable tool to both empower women and spread the word about protection, it has been shown that much must be done within communities and society as a whole to overcome stereotypes about women that serve to limit their abilities to implement safety techniques they may have learned.
As researchers such as Weeks, Singer and others point out, ideas about women’s sexuality, sexual practices and gender roles of women in minority communities (ideas that are influenced greatly by past and current racist notions) at times impacts women’s power in AIDS prevention. Ethnic and racial discrimination, therefore, are yet more factors that must be overcome to effectively deal with the AIDS epidemic for women.
Dealing with the issue of women and AIDS is not an easy one. Just telling women about prevention is not enough; complex issues of social, racial, economic, political and educational inequality must all be addressed if long-lasting and powerful changes are to be made.
Empowering women, while a huge and important step, is not just telling women they are empowered to fight AIDS; it is fighting inequality on many levels and actually allowing women to have the power to fight this disease. As Annan said, “Empowering women in the fight against AIDS must be our strategy for the future. It is our job to furnish them with hope. The fight continues.”
Meg Burd, Rocky Mountain Collegian, Colorado State University