Donor decline hits women hardest

Schoolgirl Nomasonto Masango giggles as she lists the things she and her friends want boyfriends to buy them. “If you have an older boyfriend, he can buy you things and it is nice to show your friends that you have things,” says Nomasonto. The most prized items are cell phones, jewelry and fashionable clothes.

Nomasonto is six times more likely to become infected with HIV from a man over the age of 24 than from a boy her own age, according to research conducted in Vulindlela, her semi-rural village in South Africa.

In Southern Africa, the HIV statistics for young women are high. In Nomasonto’s village, over half the young women aged between 20 and 24 are living with HIV, while less than a third of men the same age have HIV. Worldwide, a quarter of all new infections are of women aged between 15 and 24. The majority of these young women live in sub-Saharan Africa, where six out of every 10 people living with HIV are women. AIDS is still the biggest killer of women of child-bearing age in Africa.

Southern African countries carry a high burden of HIV (in Swaziland, a quarter of adults have the virus), while the risk moderates in East and Central Africa and is relatively small in West Africa.

Biology as well as social, cultural and economic factors conspire to make women much more vulnerable to the virus than are men. Physiologically, women are four times more vulnerable to HIV infection than men.

The most compelling risk factor is women’s lack of power to ensure they have safe sex. There is evidence that many women are unable to abstain from sex, guarantee that their partners will be faithful or insist on the use of condoms — the famous “ABC” mantra of AIDS educators.

In many African countries, particularly where people have been affected by war as in Zimbabwe, women are extremely vulnerable to sexual violence and “transactional sex”. Even in countries where there is no war there is a high level of coercive sex. In one survey, 40 per cent of young South African women reported being sexually abused before they reached the age of 19. A study in Kenya and Zambia found that young, married women under the age of 20 had a higher HIV rate than did unmarried women — mostly because they had married older men.

There are dozens of AIDS activist organizations in Africa facing severe budget restraints as donor funding dries up. Rwanda’s first lady, Jeanette Kagame, has ensured that the Organization of African First Ladies is lobbying and fundraising for HIV programmes, including for women living with HIV.

However, the fight against the virus is increasingly threatened by a lack of funds. Donor funding in Africa peaked in 2008, but donations are declining as the global economic recession takes its toll.

Only four out of ten Africans who need anti-retroviral medication are able to get it. Only half of African HIV-positive mothers receive ARV treatment to prevent their babies from getting the virus during pregnancy and birth.

Rather than seeing funding reduced, the global effort to combat HIV/AIDS “needs increased support,” argues Dr. Peter Mugyenyi, director of the Joint Clinical Research Centre in Kampala, the largest ARV treatment facility in Uganda. UN Women, the world body’s agency on gender issues, agrees, emphasizing that “more resources are needed, and strategies and programmes must be targeted to women in particular.”

Post published in: Africa News

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