Women younger than 25 are up to four times more likely to be infected with HIV than men of the same age - and a culture of violence and stigma is exacerbating the problem.
The human rights body Amnesty International (AI) has urged the South African government to do something about it, saying that poor, rural women bear the brunt of the country's HIV epidemic as they face sexual abuse and discrimination.
A new AI report found that rural women were disproportionately affected by
poverty and unemployment and continued to suffer subjugation at the
hands of men - increasing their risk of contracting Aids.
With some 5.5 million out of 48 million South Africans believed to
be HIV-positive, the victim profile has changed from gay, white males
to poor women living in rural settings, said the report.
Young women were up to four times more likely to be HIV-positive than men of the same age, 12 years after the country adopted a constitution guaranteeing equal rights to all its citizens.
While the overall infection rate was levelling off in South Africa,
it continued to grow among women.
"Rural South African women's lives are scarred by persistent
violence in their families, homes and in under-policed, unsafe
communities," Michelle Kagari, Deputy Director of AI's Africa
Programme, said in a statement.
"The co-existence of the epidemics of both HIV and violence against
women has raised the costs of violence for South African women and
girls -both physically and psychologically," she added.
Many women interviewed for the AI study said they did not want to
get tested for HIV for fear of a backlash from their partners or
communities, and that they risked abuse when trying to access
Long distances and high travel costs often prevented women from
visiting hospitals and clinics, and few were able to follow a healthy
diet recommended for those on HIV medication.
Denial of access
"Lack of physical access to treatment centres is tantamount to a
denial of access to health care services, and the government must take
more responsibility in ensuring this access," said Kagari.
The report recommended that the government increase its efforts to
address the "wider social and economic inequalities which act as
barriers to effective prevention, treatment and care for HIV/Aids."
It also suggested a chronic illness grant to improve HIV-infected
women's access to health services and treatment.
The body said men should become more aware and respectful of women's
rights to equality and sexual autonomy, with government and political
leaders leading by example.
Subject to abuse
The report found that women were often subject to abuse when
disclosing their status to male partners, while men avoided getting
"In the context of far greater numbers of women testing than men,
the department of health and other relevant departments should pay
particular and urgent attention to the capacity of HIV testing services
to anticipate and address possible adverse consequences for women when
they disclose their test result to male partners and families," it
said. – (Sapa)