18 March 2008

SA's stats of shame

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.

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.

Unsafe communities
"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 treatment.

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 tested.

"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)

Read more:
HIV/Aids Centre

March 2008


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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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