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AIDS Disproportionately Affects Women in Sub-Saharan Africa

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, women are more likely to be infected with HIV than men. Phuong Tran reports from Dakar on why some women are more vulnerable to HIV infection.

Weeks before her husband died, he became bone thin and weak. Even though Fatou Ndiaye did not know her husband had died of AIDS, she says she had an instinct she might be infected by the disease.

She went for her test and waited two weeks for the results.

"The day I received my test result was really difficult. My husband had only died 15 days before, and here I was getting HIV-positive results," she said. "I thought I would be dead in a month."

She suspects her husband, a taxi driver, had been infected by a sex worker. He died in 1995. More than 12 years later, Ndiaye is now remarried to another man who is HIV-positive. She met him at an HIV support group in Dakar and became his second wife.

"She [the first wife] knows our husband has HIV," she added. "They continue to have sex, but only with a condom."

Ndeye Astou Diop, president of Aboya, a Senegalese non-profit that works with HIV-positive women, says polygamy increases the risk of the virus spreading.

"Since men in Senegal can have up to four wives, he can infect up to four women," he noted. "This is one reason why the HIV epidemic has become more of a feminine one."

She says an additional factor that makes women more vulnerable to HIV is poverty. Diop says women's economic dependence on men often means less power in negotiating sexual relations, for example, in asking a man to use a condom.

Diop says, once a woman is infected, she faces harsher criticism and discrimination than men. Diop says women are often wrongly blamed for infecting or killing their husbands.

Adama Gueye was married for three years when she learned she had been infected by her husband.

"What would I do? Marry and infect another? Rather, I just stay[ed] with my husband," she said. "It is not love that keeps me with him, but rather my desire that others do not find out my status. That would be awful."

Senegal's Ministry of Health reports its number of infected women is more than twice the number of infected men. In 2005, Senegal officially reported more than 30,000 women infected with HIV.

This is still much lower than other countries in Africa, such as Zambia. According to the most recent United Nations AIDS report, young people in Zambia have a 50 percent chance of dying of AIDS, with young women six times more likely to be infected than young men.