Cultural, Sexual, Gender Roles Contribute to Spread of HIV, Studies Find
The "emotionally charged, culturally entrenched ways that men and women interact sexually" are contributing significantly to the spread of HIV worldwide, according to three reports presented yesterday at the XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, the Wall Street Journal reports. Women account for more than 66% of HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa between the ages of 15 and 24, with the ratio of infected girls to boys climbing to 5:1 in some parts of eastern and southern Africa, according to UNICEF. Among the findings of the reports unveiled yesterday:
- Researchers in Bangladesh studied 160 women and 72 men and found that 25% of women said they had "absolutely no information about sex" prior to marriage, an additional 21% said they received their first sex education "on their wedding days," usually from a female family member, and 50% of the women in the study said that when they "tried to refuse sex," their partner "coerced" them into it, often through physical force.
- "More than half" of men in Angolan refugee camps questioned in a recent study said they either "don't know about or won't use" contraception, including condoms. Researchers also found "widespread" reports of rape by police and military personnel at the camps.
- Women in a study in California, partially funded by the CDC, said that when they would "forgo condoms" it was most often to "feel closer to their partners." Some women in the study said that "condoms undermined intimacy."
'Gender Inequalities' at Play
Newsday columnist Marie Cocco writes that the studies being presented at the Barcelona conference "bar[e] the truth. Women -- heterosexual women in sanctioned relationships -- are the world's chief victims of AIDS." Although they are "not yet the majority" of those infected with HIV, "they will be, and soon." Cocco concludes, "Governments -- all governments -- must finally admit that by social custom and social policy, they are killing women. Early in the crisis, we learned AIDS is both fatal and preventable. So is sexism" (Cocco, Newsday, 7/9).
HIV/AIDS and Youth
Also released at the conference today was a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation detailing the impact of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic on young people. Nearly one-third of the 40 million HIV-positive people worldwide are between the ages of 15 and 24, and half of all new adult HIV infections are estimated to occur among this age group. But the current HIV/AIDS epidemic among the world's youth may be the "tip of the iceberg," as the spread of the disease among the young will carry long-term social, economic and demographic consequences, the report states. Among the report's findings:
- Of the five million people who became infected with HIV in 2001, 58% were under the age of 25. Forty-two percent of all new infections in 2001 occurred among people ages 15 to 24, 16% of all new infection occurred in people under the age of 15 and 42% of all new infections occurred among people ages 25 to 49.
- Seventy-six percent of HIV-positive individuals ages 15 to 24 live in sub-Saharan Africa, a region in which more than half of the overall population is under 18 years of age.
- In the countries hardest hit by the epidemic, more than 20 million young people between the ages of 20 to 34 -- the population most likely to have become infected with HIV as teens or young adults -- could die of AIDS-related causes in this decade.
- A concentration of HIV infection among young people has "vast and long-term consequences" for highly affected countries, including a large impact on life expectancy, economic growth, health care expenditures and population growth.
- Young people are especially at risk for HIV infection due to their age, biological and emotional development and financial dependence.
- Most sexually active young people at risk for HIV infection do not believe themselves to be at risk for the disease, and most HIV-positive young people do not know they are infected with the virus.
- Prevention efforts must target young people if the epidemic among this population is to be slowed ("The Tip of the Iceberg: The Global Impact of HIV/AIDS on Youth," Kaiser Family Foundation, July 2002).