23 August 2006

Many women neglected in HIV studies

In the HIV/AIDS pandemic, women seem to be forgotten, even though research has shown that women are more seriously affected by HIV than men are.

Specific groups of women are still falling between the cracks with regards to prevention, treatment, care and research. This was announced by Dr Olive Shisana, President and CEO of the HSRC, at the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada.

Shisana cited government policies, funding restrictions, stigma and even cultural practices as obstacles preventing the translation of research findings into effective, targeted interventions. In her presentation, Dr Shisana took a close look at missed opportunities and their tragic consequences, and called for action to ensure that women are no longer missed in HIV prevention and AIDS treatment programmes. She presented ten clear, achievable recommendations that, if adopted, would dramatically change lives of women affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS.

Using the literature published in health, medicine and social sciences as well as global information published by the UNAIDS, Shisana found that, while overall women have been the focus of prevention treatment and care, specific groups of women have been excluded and hence were marginalised. These are

  • pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries
  • ,
  • non-pregnant women living in some countries where the dominant mode of HIV transmission is not heterosexual,
  • HIV positive women who have sex with women (including those who do not identify themselves to be lesbians or bisexual),
  • non-injected drug users (IDU),
  • HIV-positive women in some high-income countries,
  • non-sex workers or sexual violence survivors and domestic workers.

The study found that some women have either been deliberately or inadvertently excluded from research, prevention or treatment actions.

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic began, it was seen as a disease of men, and mainly gay men. As early as 1982, programmes were started to empower men with resources and knowledge, with the result that men managed to advocate for action to contain the spread of HIV and to fast-track the development of drugs to treat AIDS.

The story of women is different. In the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as in so many other spheres of their lives, women are powerless and forgotten, even though research has shown that women are more seriously affected and, in sub Saharan Africa in particular, are more likely to be infected.

The results of the neglect of women are clear - the epidemic is spreading faster among women than men. Globally by 2005, 50.8% or 17.3 million of 34 million adults living with HIV/AIDS were women. This is up from 43.0% in 1998. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of adults living with HIV/AIDS are found, 61.1% of them are women, with female youth overall having a prevalence of two to six times that of male youth. The impact of AIDS on women has already changed life expectancy patterns in some countries, with the life expectancy of women now below that of men in Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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