Zambia's First Lady, Maureen Mwanawasa, was honored in New York Friday for her efforts of behalf of HIV/AIDS victims, especially women and children in Africa. From VOA's New York Bureau, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau reports Mwanawasa said women and girls are disproportionately affected by the global scourge.

Mwanawasa heads the Organization of African First Ladies, which launched a campaign in 2005 to prevent new infections among young people and to protect infected children from being stigmatized.

UN statistics show that every minute a child is infected with the disease. Mother-to-child transmission is the largest source of the HIV infection in children. Experts say that 50 percent of all transmissions that occur during pregnancy and birth could be eliminated if each mother had access to a single does of anti-retroviral treatment.

Mwanawasa says facts like these have fueled her sense of urgency and passion to fight against HIV/AIDS. She says women and girls face a deadly combination of poverty, weak health systems and traditions that often encourage gender inequality and allow sexual abuse.

"Since HIV is predominantly sexually transmitted in Africa, most people believe that those people suffering from the disease have brought upon themselves through weak moral behavior. I want to repeat that HIV/ADIS should not carry a morality tag since there are many ways it can be transmitted. We are dealing with innocent children born with the virus," she said.

It is estimated that more than 17 million women and girls worldwide are living with the HIV/AIDS virus. In Africa, fears of being stigmatized often make women unwilling to be tested for the virus, purchase condoms or discuss sex. Mwanawasa, who is a lawyer, says education is a key to stemming the growth of the virus. But she says the disparity in education between men and women in Africa must be corrected.

"Most women are not educated. It means that is starts from them being girls, not accessing education. That has an effect as they grow up because they are not financially empowered, they are not sufficiently knowledgeable to understand the challenges of HIV/ ADIS or to make bold decisions on their health as individuals," she said.

Advocates say two-thirds of the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS are found in Africa, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, where Zambia is located. According to Mwanawasa, 57 percent of the one million Zambians who have the virus are women. As troubling as those figures are, she says the infection rate in Zambia has been reduced 10 percent over the last five years due to the nation's willingness to recognize the problem and grapple with it.

"Civil society is working very hard to drum up campaign messages, the government is ensuring that on radio and television messages on HIV/AIDS are almost on a daily basis very routine, maybe 100 times per day messages on HIV/AIDS are being given to the people. The government has brought the program on prevention of transmission from mother to child in all the clinics. Education on sex is given to the children so they are aware of how to protect themselves against sexual abuse, on how to challenge the perpetrators," she said.

Ms. Mwanawasa made her comments at an event organized by World Vision, a Christian humanitarian group that works with children and families throughout the world. The group is providing one million AIDS kits to volunteers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The kits contain basic necessities such as antifungal creams, flashlights, latex gloves and soap.