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UN: HIV/AIDS Leading Cause of Death and Disease Among Younger Women

The United Nations AIDS agency says in many societies young women and girls face discrimination and gender inequalities that can make them more vulnerable to HIV infection. The agency launched a new initiative Tuesday to reverse that trend and put women at the center of national and local AIDS response.

Suksma Ratri's story is like that of many other women around the world.

Separated from her physically abusive husband she found out that he was HIV-positive. She immediately got herself and their young daughter tested at a clinic in her native Indonesia. She tested positive, her daughter did not.

But it is Suksma's response to the news that is different from many other HIV-positive women. She told her closest friends and her employer and has been open about her HIV status ever since.

"Actually, I'm enjoying myself being open, because every time I say, 'yes, I'm HIV-positive,' people are like, 'oh my god, you're no different.' I say, 'yes, I'm no different. It's just I have the virus and you don't, and that's the only difference between us,'" said Suksma Ratri.

Suksma's story reflects a bigger trend in global HIV/AIDS infection rates. According to UNAIDS, HIV is the leading cause of death and disease among women ages 15-49.

Across the globe, women make up fully half of the epidemic.

And in sub-Saharan Africa, where some of the highest HIV rates are, 60 percent of the people living with HIV are women.

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé warned that this has serious consequences for the health and mortality, not just of women, but their children as well.

"400,000 babies are born every year in Africa - 400,000 babies with HIV/AIDS," said Michel Sidibé. "It means that amongst those babies which are born, we will have almost 30 percent of those babies will die before their first anniversary [birthday] if they do not have access to medicine."

Sidibé says this is a symptom of a larger problem.

"Worse than that one, it means that 400,000 women, mothers, have not been checked, have not been having access to services, have not been able to at least avoid transmission from mother to child," said Sidibé. "But also they will be at risk to not live with us for years to come."

Sidibé says the new UNAIDS initiative aims to give women and girls the power to prevent HIV infection, by giving them the information and skills to negotiate when and how they have sex; to protect their human rights; and ensure their access to prevention, care and treatment.

The five-year plan hopes to eliminate gender inequalities in HIV-prevention and treatment by getting governments, civil society and development groups involved in putting women and girls at the center of their AIDS response.