Cultural Traditions in Asia, Africa Leave Women More Vulnerable to HIV/AIDS
Women in Asia and Africa are becoming increasingly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, as cultural traditions often leave them "powerless" to reject unwanted or unsafe sex, the New York Times reports. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged the problem in a report last week, stating, "The gender dynamics of the epidemic are far-reaching due to women's weaker ability to negotiate safe sex, and their generally lower social and economic status." The issue "rekindles" the topic of women's rights -- including their right to insist on the use of condoms -- that "dominated" the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo and the international conference on women the following year in Beijing. Women in developing countries typically cite property laws and cultural practices as barriers to protection against HIV, according to Stephanie Urdang, adviser on sex and HIV for the United Nations' program for women. These practices are expected to bring "catastrophic results" in South Asian countries, where "by virtually every international measure women have the lowest status in the world." Urdang cited several specific cultural practices that make women particularly vulnerable to the virus, including the belief that "if a man sleeps with a virgin, he'll be cured" and the practice in which a widow is "married off" to the brother of her deceased husband. Another "devastating practice," Urdang noted, "is that women do not have land rights and property rights in most of sub-Saharan Africa, which means they are allocated a plot of land to work on in order to produce food for the family. But if the husband dies, they have no right to that land anymore, or even the house that the husband would have built for them. ... And if [the husband has] died of AIDS, what regularly happens is that the first person to be diagnosed in the family is the pregnant wife, because she'll go to a clinic and will be tested. Then she'll be looked at as the cause for disease."
Problems in Asia
According to the Times, South Asian women suffer from the "highest" level of illiteracy "anywhere" in the world, and few health centers have been established in "rural areas" to meet these women's needs. Asian prostitutes have "long complained" that customers "refuse" to use condoms. The government of Vietnam this month found in one study that 20% of prostitutes tested positive for HIV. Women's groups in Bangladesh, India and Nepal have raised warnings about the "folly of ignoring social attitudes," according to Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition in New York. In India, "there is quite a bit of unrecognized homosexuality, especially early among men, who then marry later, with their wives not having any idea that they had earlier relationships" potentially involving "risky sex," Germain said. In addition, women in India are "totally uninformed about sex when they are married, the marriages are often to older men and arranged by their families," and women are under "great pressure to produce sons, and the use of contraceptives, specifically condoms, is out of the question," Germain explained. She concluded, "In India, the low status of women, the economic dependence, the marriage patterns, all of these factors are going to mean that women are much less likely than even women in Africa to be able to negotiate condom use or to have any say at all about when sex occurs. Much more needs to be understood about the relationship between women's status and the epidemic."
Focusing on Women, Children
Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, urged governments and international agencies to "focus on the particular needs of women" in order to combat the AIDS epidemic. Germain also recommended that these groups "work with young people and get to both girls and boys early, and not in just the conventional sex education mode," but in a way that "emphasizes gender equality and power relations and sexuality more broadly, not just biologically." But Germain noted that "there are a lot of taboos against doing that. The need to get information to young people is critical. But the political will doesn't yet exist" (Crossette, New York Times, 2/26).