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Fostering gender equality is one of the most important strategies for fighting HIV and AIDS in the developing world, along with maintaining existing campaigns, including promoting condom use, an expert on woman’s health and social issues said.

In a lecture last week at the National Women’s Education Center in Saitama Prefecture, Suman Mehta, Global HIV/AIDS coordinator of the United Nations Population Fund, said the social, economic and biological vulnerability of women is one of the reasons the disease has spread so rapidly.

The UNFPA focuses on improving reproductive health care in developing countries.

In 2002 alone, 5 million people contracted HIV, pushing the total number of those living with HIV to about 42 million worldwide.

A breakdown indicates that women from developing countries are especially vulnerable to the disease. About 95 percent of the 5 million cases are in the Third World. Almost 50 percent are women, and 50 percent are between 15 and 24 years old.

“While women are physically already two to four times more susceptible to contracting HIV compared with men, young girls are even more likely, due to their skin tissue being soft and undeveloped,” Mehta said.

This susceptibility, coupled with women’s lower social status, puts them in great danger, she said. “The social imbalance denies many young women access to means that can protect them, such as education that gives information about how to avoid danger.”

Women in developing countries lack economic independence, and many are forced to engage in prostitution to survive, she said, adding that many women in the Third World have no right of inheritance.

Mehta pointed out that other social customs, including early marriages and female genital circumcision, also strengthen men’s control over women’s sexuality.

Traditional expectations toward men that they should be strong and all-knowing are additional negative factors for preventing the disease from spreading. Many men are too proud to ask about the danger of HIV and instead engage in high-risk sex.

A breakthrough could be achieved by empowering women and girls, and if organizations like the UNFPA work harder on gender-equality issues and gender-sensitive policies, Mehta said.

How women are perceived in society can be changed, she said. “We will keep working to eradicate discrimination against women.”

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