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Experts: Underlying Issues Put Women at Greater Risk of HIV Infection

The White House and U.S. embassies around the world dimmed their lights Wednesday to commemorate World AIDS Day, this year dedicated to empowering women and girls in the fight against the disease. The U.N.'s AIDS organization says the number of women infected with HIV is on the rise in every region of the world.

When Kenyan medical student Asunta Wagura went for a routine health check-up, she never expected to find out she was HIV positive.

Her school expelled her immediately. Her family rejected her. Unable to find employment, she waited out the six months doctors gave her to live, feeling desperately alone. That was 16 years ago.

With a young son to care for, Ms. Wagura founded a support group, Kenya Network of Women with AIDS. The group operates centers for HIV-positive women and their families, provides food and care, and works to increase women's access to health care and treatment.

Wearing a small red AIDS ribbon on her jacket, Ms. Wagura spoke alongside panelists representing various AIDS organizations on December first, World AIDS Day, in Washington. She says her grassroots organization has expanded to more than 2000 women.

"I work with a network where we bury four people every week and one of these four people is an infant that was because the mother could not access the mother to child prevention," she said. "It's disheartening and heartbreaking when we live with death staring at our faces."

Ms. Wagura and her network are among the nearly 20 million women worldwide living with HIV.

The president of the International Center for Research on Women, Geeta Rao Gupta, says about seven thousand women are newly infected with HIV each day throughout the world. She says the virus that causes AIDS is disproportionately affecting women and girls.

"In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, almost 60percent of all adult HIV infections are among women and more than 75-percent of African youth who live with HIV today are girls," she said.

Ms. Gupta explains that economic insecurity puts women at greater risk for the disease.

"Because women are economically vulnerable and dependent on men, they are more likely to get infected by selling sex for money, goods or favors, less likely to be able to negotiate protection with a sexual partner, and less likely to leave a risky relationship even if they know it's risky and less likely to be able to cope with the illness once infected or care for loved ones who are infected," she added.

Director of the U.N. AIDS organization Peter Piot underscores that AIDS is not just a problem in Africa, but is on the rise in every region of the world. He says the United States is playing a major role in the fight against AIDS and is the biggest funder of condoms, the HIV prevention method deemed most effective.

In the U.S., President Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS is the largest commitment ever by a single nation to an international health initiative, with a $15 billion commitment over five years to combat the disease.

Dr. Piot says UNAIDS supports the initiatives emphasized in the president's relief plan, adding that cultural issues such as gender inequality also need to be addressed.

"We are fully, fully behind the need for scaling up ABC programs: Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condom use," he explained. "But these programs are not being implemented in a social vacuum. They are implemented in a world where women are still in a very vulnerable position. So that's why we've got to go beyond that."

Calling gender inequality "fatal", Ms. Gupta says programs must address the unique challenges women face. She says women and girls must have greater access to information about HIV prevention and treatment, especially programs that address the social stigma and violence that accompany the infection.

She adds that cultural changes must also take place in many parts of the world, to give women greater access to higher education and economic assets. Ms. Gupta says such improvements would make a woman less vulnerable if her spouse died.