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So it is official: The face of HIV/AIDS is a woman’s face.

Although it was former United Nations’ Secretary General Kofi Annan who made that famous statement a few years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO), confirmed the metaphor last week when HIV/AIDS was identified as the leading cause of death and disease amongst women worldwide, especially in Africa. AIDS is officially a woman’s disease.

The study, the first from WHO on women’s health, highlights “the inequality in health care faced by females of all ages because of poverty, less access to health care and cultural beliefs that put a priority on male well-being.”  The virus has the highest prevalence rates in [Sub-Saharan] Africa, where women make up an estimated 57% of adults living with HIV, and three quarters of young people living with disease there are young women aged 15-24.

Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Chief, said at the launch of the report that, “We will not see a significant improvement in the health of women until they are no longer recognized as second-class citizens in many parts of the world.”

This is a major reproductive health and rights crisis, reflecting the inequality of women globally. Violence against women, poverty, lack of access to education and basic health care services all contribute to making the face of AIDS a woman’s face.

I am normally an optimist when it comes to creating an equal world for women and girls. But this latest study combined with recent developments in the US health care reform makes the politics of women’s health startlingly clear to me.

Let’s talk about the introduction of the Stupack Amendment into the US health care bill for a minute. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the night before the health care bill passed the House of Representatives, the Catholic Church, with its ever powerful lobby, got this amendment added to the bill which denies women abortion coverage both in public and private insurance plans.

I find it shocking how the health care debate has become such a blatant battle over who dictates women’s fertility. Who really controls women’s reproduction? Who determines our access to contraception? Women certainly don’t. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute an estimated 200 million women around the world currently wish to delay or prevent pregnancy, but lack access to contraceptives.

The situation around the world for women and girls is not much better. US foreign policies play a huge role in shaping women’s access to family planning. For example, the US, the largest funder to global health programs, has a $50 billion dollar AIDS initiative called PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) which notoriously promotes the ABC (abstinence, be faithful, and as a last resort use condoms) model in Africa. Imagine an AIDS initiative that promotes abstinence, and not safe sex in the continent with the highest HIV/AIDS numbers in the world!

Today we find ourselves with HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacting women. Feminists have long advocated the fact that women cannot really be empowered until they are in control of their reproduction. In the case of HIV/AIDS, women cannot really protect themselves from this pandemic until their general oppression is addressed. And until women, not men, are dictating legislation which determines how, if at all, our bodies are governed.

*This post of mine was also published on Feministing.

5 comments

  1. It’s really surprising that women, even in the face of losing their lives, undergo through troubles of discrimination and prejudice. I’m sure that in the western society, women don’t have to deal with this. What saddens me is that countries where education is scarce and the social status between men and women are too large, lives have to put under a great risk. Isn’t every single life valuable enough to be saved? Isn’t it worth the effort to save a person, even though he or she has a small chance of living? It all comes down to whether or not we see a value in a person. Men, in general, are more valued because of the role they play in our society. Women, on the other hand, can be downplayed, especially in countries that have strict restrictions on the freedom of women. What would’ve happen if countries do also prioritize women’s health? Such dangerous diseases like the HIV virus cannot be briefly overlooked. If women were to get properly treated wouldn’t that chance HIV spreading also decrease?

  2. When I first read this article, I was appalled. I had no idea that a disease could “discriminate” against women. This blog post clearly shows that AIDS isn’t just a biological disease – it’s a social disease. The disproportionate number of women with AIDS simply reflects society’s discrimination towards women. If women were given better health care or received better education on birth control, then fewer women would have AIDS. If governments tried enforce laws that prevented men from sexual assaulting women, then the number of women who are raped and contract the HIV virus would significantly decrease. Most importantly, the significant number of women with AIDS clearly indicates that women lack reproductive rights. Women get AIDS because they are not given the choice to use condoms and contraceptives. In some African countries, women cannot even afford or access birth control in the first place. You’ve clearly mentioned that this birth control issue is prevalent in America as well. Your statements on the Stupack Amendment show that American women’s rights are being violated. Even U.S. women do not have the right to choose what to do with their bodies. Instead, they must obey to authority and must comply with oppressive laws. As a “pro-choice” person, I definitely agree that the Stupack Amendment, as well as any rule that outlaws abortions, is unjust. Women should be given the right to choose.
    Economic factors also play a role in the spread of AIDS. Many women are poor and cannot afford drugs or health care. To make matters even worse, AIDS leads to discrimination the same way discrimination leads to AIDS. Women are likely to get AIDS because of the discrimination they face. However, women with AIDS face even more discrimination. This “two-way effect” creates a deadly downward spiral. Many feminist organizations, such as UNIFEM, are fighting back and are trying to reduce the discrimination that is responsible for spreading AIDS to women.
    Based on the discrimination women must face in some countries (especially African countries), I think that there are other diseases that also affect a disproportionate number of women. Do you know if this is true?

  3. I also believe that the central problem lies in the world’s treatment of women as a second class population, especially in third world nations. Women are being discriminated against and deprived of equal treatment all over the world, which has caused HIV/ AIDS to become a woman’s disease.

    Males play a major role in raising the number of female AIDS patients. Studies in the article have shown that males are highly likely to enjoy sexual relationships outside their homes, aside from their wives or girl friends. Sometimes males have multiple partners, which increases the probability of becoming infected with HIV. All these innocent women trust their men to be faithful so they often do not use a condom or any source of protection when having sexual intercourse. These women not only risk their chance of getting HIV, but also the risk of getting pregnant with a baby that might be a carrier of the virus. Women are being exploited to an even higher degree in the developing nations. All over the world, there are women being raped and trafficked as sex slaves. These illegal actions, again, inevitably contribute to the rate of HIV infections amongst women. Until women gain control of their own body and are able to protect themselves from the oppressions of their society, HIV will continue to remain as a woman’s disease.

    In order to aid these females to gain control of their own bodies, I believe women should be the focus for the treatments and prevention campaigns promoted by NGOs such as the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO and other health related NGOs are trying to educate people of the new treatments and make them more accessible to people of low income. I still believe these treatments need to be refined, because some of them are useless in the third world nations of Africa. The theoretical aimed audience for the current interventions is males of developed nations when most HIV patients are women of third world nations. Most of these women live in slum areas of Africa with no access to even the basic necessities. I do not understand how a website with information about the viral disease and promotion of condoms will apply to these women when they cannot even afford to buy themselves a proper meal. In addition, even these treatments are not mainly for females. Women are, most of the time, completely ignored; less than fifty percent of women in different nations are receiving the current promoted set of interventions by WHO. Therefore, I believe there needs to be a HIV/ AIDS medical campaign devoted just to females.

  4. I thought that an interesting twist was taken to the disease that is so widely talked about, but never really worked upon to prevent. It was enlightening for me to see the disease written about from a woman’s point of view. It was interesting to read the facts about HIV and AIDS in Africa, such as the fact that 57% of the infected population is women and those three-quarters of these women are actually aged from 15 to 24 years old. This was a shocking realization for me and made me feel that measures should be taken to protect African women. While I knew this issue was serious, I never knew women were so affected by it.

    I thought the quote from Dr. Margaret Chan was especially interesting. I have always thought that countries cannot thrive without giving rights to women. Dr. Margaret Chan simplifies the whole confusing concept in a few simple sentences by stating that the health of women will not improve without giving women rights. By giving women rights, it will not only help the country grow and prosper, but the overall health of the population will begin to increase, too.

    By reading this blog, a lot of issues came up to my mind. It seems fair to pose the question of who should really be controlling sex. As in many cultures, it is often the man who will control it. However, the questions Anushay poses about sex and pregnancy are very straight-forward and honest. To really fix the issue of HIV and AIDS, I believe that women should definitely have more of a say in the issue. I also agree with the fact that it is the women’s bodies that go through sex, and also have more consequences, such as pregnancy and diseases. As a female myself, I strongly support the point that women should be free to control their own decisions about sex, therefore preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS around the world.

  5. I am really glad that someone mentioned the issue of women’s rights regarding their bodies. As I am a woman myself and will someday face pregnancy, it saddens me that women around the world do not get much support for their decision to abort. The most shocking was the United States, a country I thought to be very liberal and equal. That Obama’s new health care plan does not cover abortion under insurance shows the detrioration of American women’s rights. The U.S. surely wasn’t 100 percent supportive of abortion, but they never abolish it. American women are allowed to have abortions, but only those who can afford them may exercise this right. This extinguishes the women’s rights to abort. I read an article published in 2006 about Nicaragua’s abolition of abortion and this proved that women around the world are not given the right to abort. Both abolitions of abortion in the U.S. and in Nicaragua were initiated by Roman Catholics, whose religion bans abortion. The articles I read about the U.S.’s new health care plan and Nicaragua’s ban of abortion taught me that Roman Catholics made up the majority of the voters. Also, I realized that the government made decisions in favor of the Roman Catholics for their re-elections in the next term. I felt that this was very cowardly because barely any governmental officials stood up for their own beliefs about abortion but instead supported the Catholics. I found this very disappointing.

    I agree with Anushay that HIV/AIDS has become a women’s disease, especially in Africa. Poverty, lack of health care for women, and cultural beliefs favoring of men are all reasons for the higher rate of women with HIV/AIDS, but the biggest factor is men’s oppression of women. I saw an HBO movie called Yesterday in my Global Issues class, a movie about a woman, Yesterday, in a Zulu village who later finds out that she has HIV and eventually dies from it. The woman did not have HIV until she had intercourse with her husband, who works in the city and obviously has been promiscuous. This movie reflects on one important cultural aspect that increases the rate of women with HIV/AIDS in South Africa: men in the city are allowed to be promiscuous while women aren’t allowed by their husbands use condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. Because of this aspect, men with HIV continue to spread the disease to women while women have no protection against it. If South Africa wants to decrease the rate of women with HIV/AIDS, it should first change the men’s mindset that it is humiliating for husbands to use contraceptives when having intercourse with women.

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