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World: HIV/AIDS Having Increasing Impact On Women

Today is World AIDS day, and across the globe, events are being held to draw attention to the disease and promote its eradication. This year, World AIDS Day is focusing on the increasing impact of the disease on women, who now make up nearly half of the 37 million adults living with the HIV virus worldwide. Experts are warning that infection rates in women and girls must be reduced if the AIDS pandemic is to be brought under control.

Prague, 1 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "Hello, would you like to contribute 10 crowns ($0.45) for an AIDS ribbon?"
"I only have a 20-crown coin."
"Take two ribbons then, and give one to a friend. And here's a leaflet. Thanks!"

Young volunteers in central Prague collect money for their local AIDS charity.

It's just one of many events taking place around the globe today, to mark World AIDS day.

It comes several days after a United Nations report said that the face of HIV/AIDS is increasingly a female one. Just under half of the estimated 37 million adults living with HIV/AIDS are women.

Doctor Peter Piot is executive director of the UN's AIDS agency.

"The face of the AIDS epidemic is a young woman, particularly a young woman in Africa, and this has some profound implications. While we have to continue our prevention efforts, while we have to continue our treatment efforts, we will not be able to stop this epidemic unless we put women at the heart of the response to AIDS," Piot said.

In most regions, an increasing proportion of people living with the virus are women and girls. And the United Nations says that proportion is continuing to grow, particularly in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

In Russia last year, women made up 38 percent of HIV-infected people, a jump from 24 percent in 2001.

In Ukraine, the country hardest hit by HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe, 30 percent of HIV infections are among women -- women like Olga, a 37-year-old former teacher with three children.

"If it was a few years ago, being diagnosed with HIV meant death. One would know there are not many years to live. But now, as I hope, one's life can be prolonged with AIDS treatment. I want to bring up my children, and I want to be on treatment because I hope it'll give me more years to live, and I will see my children grow up," Olga said.

Like men, women contract the virus in two main ways -- injecting drugs with infected needles, or through unprotected sex.

But the United Nations says women and girls are vulnerable to HIV infection in ways that men and boys are not. It says that in many cultures, women and girls often lack the power to refuse sex or to insist on condom use. So many faithful, married women are getting infected, too.

Another factor is violence. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the risk of HIV infection increases when sex is forced.

In the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, the rape of women and girls has contributed to a rise in HIV infections. That's how Marie Donatienne Nyakasane contracted the virus.

"As they pushed me to the ground and spread my legs, I felt pain all over my abdomen from being pulled apart. It was then that the first commander raped me. As soon as the first man finished, the second man raped me. He was the one who inserted a gun into my vagina," Nyakasane said.

The availability of life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs for people living with HIV/AIDS is slowly improving. The WHO is calling on countries to set targets to ensure women and girls get their fair share of the drugs that can save their lives.


See also RFE/RL's series on Central Asia and AIDS.

A Silent Killer Threatens The Region (Part 1)

HIV Infections Mount In Uzbekistan As Prostitution Rises (Part 2)

Attitudes, Abuse Contribute To Spread Of AIDS (Part 3)

What's Being Done About AIDS? (Part 4)