What Is a Woman Worth? The Feminization of AIDS

Marcy Bloom

HIV infections among women and girls have risen in every part of the world in recent years. The numbers point to a startling reality - the HIV/AIDS pandemic is inextricably linked to the brutal effects of sexism and gender inequality, most pronounced in Africa.

What is a woman worth?

infections among women and girls have risen in every part of the world
in recent years. The numbers point to a fundamental and startling
reality – the HIV/AIDS pandemic is inextricably linked to the brutal
effects of sexism and gender inequality, most pronounced in Africa.

Consider these statistics: The latest reports
from the UNAIDS (Dec. 2007) show 33.2 million people are living with
HIV throughout the world. Sub-Saharan Africa has more than two-thirds
(22.6 million) of the total number of HIV infections. Sixty-two per
cent (14 million) of those infected are women and adolescent girls.
Seventy-five per cent of all HIV-positive women in the world are
African.Photo by Chuck BiggerPhoto by Chuck Bigger

Why are we allowing women and girls to
die from this preventable and treatable disease? What is a woman worth
in our world today?

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Gender Discrimination At the Core

"The toll on women and girls presents Africa and the world with a
practical and moral challenge, which places gender at the center of the
human condition. The practice of ignoring gender analysis has turned
out to be lethal…what has happened to women is a gross and palpable violation of human rights," said Stephen Lewis, former UN Secretary-General’s Envoy to Africa, at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain in 2002.

forms of violence against African women contribute to, and worsen, the
devastation of women and girls from the HIV/AIDS virus. Women and girls
are often ill informed about sexual and reproductive matters and are
more likely than men and boys to be uneducated and illiterate.
Physiologically, women are two to four times more likely than men to
become infected with HIV, but they lack social power to insist on safer
sex or to reject sexual advances.

Gender Violence and Poverty are Disease Risks

violence and harmful traditional practices are some of the major risks
for contracting the HIV virus. These include sexual violence, marital
rape, domestic violence, early child marriage of young girls to older
men, forced marriage, wife inheritance, widow cleansing, polygamy, and
female genital mutilation.

Poverty forces many
women into subsistence sex work or transactional relationships that
preclude negotiating condom use. For economic reasons, women are often
unable to leave a relationship, even if they know that their partner
has been infected or exposed to HIV. In many African countries, women
are designated as minors, lack their own earning power, are unable to
obtain credit and cannot own or inherit property.

oppressive economic dependency of women on men is a core aspect of
gender relations in this region. This critical issue must be taken on
with real solutions and basic societal changes by governments, AIDS
programs, non-profit groups, and, most importantly, the women

Thoraya Obaid, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund
(UNFPA), said in 2006: "Women and girls are vulnerable to AIDS not
because of their individual behavior, but because of the discrimination
and violence they face, the unequal power relations. Even being married
is a risk factor for women…Female HIV infections are on the rise in
Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, as well as in Africa. And AIDS
is the leading cause of death for 25-34-year-old African-American women
in the United States…only by addressing the needs and human rights of
women and ensuring their full participation will we change the course
of this disease."

Cures To Reverse the Spread of HIV/AIDS

So what is to be done?

reverse the spread of AIDS, women must have greater control of their
decisions, bodies and lives-as well as their governments and public

In 2004, UNAIDS launched the Global Coalition
on Women and AIDS, a worldwide alliance of civil society groups,
governments, UN organizations and networks of women living with
HIV/AIDS. The coalition’s platform calls for education, literacy, and
economic rights for women; equal access to antiretroviral treatment;
access to sexual and reproductive health services; changes in harmful
gender stereotypes; and zero tolerance for gender-based violence.

Three-quarters of all new HIV infections are sexually transmitted
between men and women. The behaviors of men are critical to prevention
efforts in Africa. They hold overwhelming power in decisions about
sexual matters, including whether to have sex or to use condoms. In
many societies, women are expected to know little about such matters
and those who raise the issue of condom use risk accusations of being unfaithful or promiscuous.

Photo by Chuck BiggerPhoto by Chuck BiggerHIV
care and contraceptive management programs — two important elements of
women’s health — must begin to work together according to UNFPA. For
too long they have separated themselves because of the politicizations
and funding aspects of both of these issues. This is clearly
shortsighted, if women’s lives are to be saved.
Equal access to
antiretroviral treatment will help to safeguard a woman’s well being
and prevent HIV transmission to her children. Ethics and human rights
demand that women who are HIV positive are able to make informed
contraceptive decisions, including the ability to prevent unwanted
pregnancy. Voluntary contraception is integral to stemming the HIV

Hard Choices Make Hard Policy

of the most effective steps to stemming the feminization of HIV/AIDS
are not about healthcare per se but about broad social changes. Dr.
Chinua Akuke of the Board of Directors of the Constituency for Africa
in Washington, D.C. and an adjunct professor of public health at George
Washington University, said: "The key question is whether African
leaders and elite are ready to make hard choices that would slow down
the rate of infections among women…The key is to focus on practical
solutions to a problem that can only get worse if nothing is done."

She describes ten critical steps for African leaders.

  • Mount a comprehensive information, education and communication campaign
    against risk-behaving practices of men that put women at risk of HIV
    infection, with bans on sugar daddies, the rape of young girls by
    schoolteachers and the molestation of young girls by their own family
  • Address cultural practices that put
    women at disadvantage, such as women’s subservience in sexual matters,
    the lack of property rights for widows and single women, the culture of
    wife inheritance after widowhood and the lack of opportunity for women
    to discuss sexual risks with their husbands.
  • Invest in the long-term education of girls and women to end women’s disproportionate poverty.
  • Build enabling environments for empowering African women to control
    their own generated income and to overcome cultural taboos and tightly
    controlled economic choices that severely constrict the capacity of
    African women to negotiate safer personal behaviors.
  • Create political space for women. In order to fight AIDS, women must
    be in decision-making positions in government and in civil society.
  • Develop the necessary legal framework to protect women from
    discrimination and the lack of due process. Law reform on rape, sexual
    molestation, domestic violence, favors-for-forced sexual relations and
    property rights are crucial, as are bans on discrimination of
    individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
  • Establish
    public health services that are friendly and accessible to women, and
    run by women for women in a true feminist model. The fear of violence
    and lack of confidentiality prevent many women from accessing services
    for HIV or for other sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis
    that facilitate HIV transmission.
  • Make
    gender issues a major priority of international development assistance.
    National budgets should devote resources to ending gender inequalities
    and creating opportunities and protections for women.
  • Lead the fight against sexual violence against women and put in place
    functional laws that deny sanctuary to the perpetrators of violence.
    The law must punish rapists and abusers — perpetrators who set off a
    chain of events that leave women emotionally scarred and at risk of
  • Fight against widespread
    poverty with programs that target women. Poverty is a major reason why
    women knowingly engage in high-risk behaviors. The feminization of
    AIDS is closely intertwined with women’s low status, deprivation and
    harsh living conditions and macroeconomic policies must create the
    opportunity for women to escape poverty.

Misogyny Kills


Women need gender-focused and
women-sensitive approaches to halting HIV/AIDS, according to UNFPA.
Solutions must be African-based and African-implemented, and women must
be integral to all of it. Women must be able to gain more control in
decisions affecting their lives.

Young men who
learn to respect women and understand their responsibilities in halting
HIV/AIDS are more likely to use condoms. Husbands can — and must — be
enlisted to protect their wives and future children against HIV and
other sexually transmitted infections.

we are really addressing in HIV-AIDS is the need to end misogyny-ending
sexist attitudes and behaviors against women that violate their very

What is a woman worth in this world? What are 14
million women worth? They are worth absolutely everything to
themselves, their families, their communities, their countries-and
their world. We desperately need their vitality, contributions,
insights, and power. Let us begin with the personal and political
empowerment of the women of Africa and let our African sisters know
that they are not alone in their struggle for respect, dignity and life.

This article first appeared in On the Issues Magazine, a feminist, progressive magazine newly launched as an Internet publication.

To share your thoughts about how the U.S. can better prioritize global women’s health, join our online forum on Tuesday, June 3rd, from 1pm to 4pm EST!

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