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UN Report: Women's Rights Plays Role in AIDS Prevention - 2004-07-15


Action on AIDS that does not pay special attention to women is doomed to failure, according to a report from the United Nations.

In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 60 percent of the people with HIV-AIDS are women. Worldwide, the ratio of women with HIV to men is rising, and is now nearly equal.

A U.N. report says that means countries coping with AIDS need to pay more attention to women's rights.

HIV thrives where women are discriminated against, according to Noeleen Heyzer, chief of UNIFEM, the U.N. Development Fund for Women.

"Here, gender inequality is fatal. It kills," she says.

Speakers at the conference say HIV programs that do not address the full spectrum of women's rights will not be able to contain the disease.

Thoraya Obaid, head of the U.N. Population Fund, cautions that HIV prevention based on abstinence will not be much help to many women.

"Abstinence means little to a girl or woman who is coerced or forced into sexual relations," she said. "Abstinence is not an option for the millions of girls that are forced into marriage as child brides."

Ms. Obaid adds that promoting condom use will not help much either, since women often have no power in a relationship to ask men to use them.

UNIFEM's Ms. Heyzer says special effort must be made to ensure women have access to treatment.

"When there is scarcity of resources, it is the women who get the treatment last," she said.

She adds that women in many cases prefer that their husbands get treated first, because inheritance laws in some countries leave women with nothing, if their husbands die.

And Ms. Heyzer notes that even women who are not infected with HIV still bear the burden of the disease, because they are usually the caregivers.

"We have to improve the health care system, so that women do not become the health care system," she said. "We all know they are the ones pulled out of the productive sector to take care of the sick and the dying."

The report recommends more education for women and girls, as well as teaching men and boys to respect them.

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