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Women in Ivory Coast Fight HIV-AIDS Stigma

International AIDS groups across the globe held women's solidarity marches Tuesday, sending the message that women in particular need to be helped in the fight against HIV-AIDS. In Ivory Coast, AIDS groups are trying to reinforce the message that women need to be encouraged to stand up for their sexual rights to help battle the disease.

Dr. Caren Grown, a director at the International Center for Research for Women, says that women are increasingly infected because of lack of information, and because they can't keep themselves safe from the disease.

"Because of women's lack of social and economic power in particular, many women and young girls are unable to negotiate relationships that might be based on abstinence, or faithfulness or the use of condoms," she said. "And it is really important to find ways to reduce women's vulnerability."

In Ivory Coast, where the HIV infection rate is the highest in West Africa, a group called the Active Women of Cote d'Ivoire are encouraging each other to take charge of their lives, and tell spouses and family that they have the virus, even though they risk rejection by their extended family circle.

Once a month three hundred women sit in a circle on the grass outside Koumassi Hospital in the commercial capital Abidjan. They talk about the problems they have in getting money, and looking after their children, most of whom were born with HIV.

The secretary of the Active Women group, Anita Membey says that religion plays a part in the denial that AIDS exists.

There are certain religious people who say that AIDS is a curse, Ms. Membey says, while others say that the illness is a fiction and tell people not to not take medicine and their illness will pass.

A member of the group, Aminata Kabore, says she is angry with religious leaders who do not speak out against the disease. Ms. Kabore is Muslim, and became the second wife of a man who wanted to replace a wife who had died.

Ms. Kabore says she discovered that she had HIV - the disease that causes AIDS - when she became pregnant. And, when she told her husband he left her. The Active Women group helped her find a job and money to buy anti-retroviral drugs. Now, she tells other women about her disease, hoping her story can help others.

Religious leaders in Ivory Coast are trying to do more to speak out about AIDS, but also to try and give women more power in their relationships.

One of Ivory Coast's main Muslim leaders, Imam Mamadou Dosso, who preaches in a large mosque in Abidjan's busy district of Adjame, says that he tells his congregation that Islam is not a religion of polygamy and that men should try and stay with one wife.

Mr. Dosso says that he tells people in his mosque that AIDS exists and they must take medical and social responsibility for themselves.

Mr. Dosso is trying to get other religious leaders to join him in spreading the word about the dangers of AIDS.

Civil war in Ivory Coast is believed to have made women more vulnerable to HIV, as violence increases against women during conflict. War also makes women economically vulnerable, and increases the likelihood that they will use sex in order to get food or money.