Chilling information on HIV/AIDS
July 16, 2004
Guyana has received a chilling wakeup call about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and women, in particular, should be deeply concerned.
First, the Washington-based Population Services Incorporated (PSI) estimated that some 18,000 Guyanese are infected with the HIV virus out of an adult population of 432,000. This works out to a startling rate of infection of approximately one in every 25 adults. Considering that many adults in Guyana are celibate due to personal preference, old age, bad health or other reasons, the rate of infection among sexually active adults will certainly be dramatically higher.
Second, research findings presented at the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, show that around the world HIV/AIDS is surging among women, and they are far more at risk than men of contracting the disease.
According to recent statistics worldwide, women made up nearly half of the adults living with HIV/AIDS in 2003, up from 41 percent in 1997. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) reported that nearly 50 percent of the estimated 38 million people who are victims of the pandemic are women.
According to UNAIDS, women are more physically susceptible to HIV infection than men and male-to-female transmission during sex is about twice as likely to occur as female-to- male transmission. World Health Organisation (WHO) gives biological, economic and socio-cultural reasons for this, most of which apply to women in Guyana.
Biologically, the larger mucosal surface of women’s sexual organs increases the risk of micro-lesions, which can occur during intercourse; very young women are even more vulnerable in this respect. There is also more of the virus in sperm than in vaginal secretions, so women are at least four times more vulnerable to infection. Further, women are especially vulnerable to coerced or forced sex, which increases risk of micro-lesions and therefore HIV/AIDS transmission.
Since many women tend to be financially or materially dependent on men, they often cannot control when, with whom and in what circumstances they have sex. In addition, economic disadvantages driven by gender inequalities influence many women to exchange sex for material gain. Moreover, many women worldwide are forced or coerced into prostitution, in circumstances which escalate their risk of HIV/AIDS infection.
To make matters worse for women, they are seriously disadvantaged both socially and culturally in most societies, including the Guyanese society. It is quite plain that women do not have the same leverage as men in discussions or decisions about sex. For various reasons, many women are so subservient to men that they cannot request, much less insist, on any form of protection from HIV/AIDS. By taking action to protect themselves and their partners, women often risk abuse. Indeed, sexual abuse of women is itself a risk factor for infection.
UNAIDS findings have exposed the painful fact that women have a significantly weaker bargaining position than men in matters related to sex and this contributes significantly to their greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. In short, unequal gender (social, economic, and power) relations are driving the epidemic and women are disproportionately affected. Not only are they more vulnerable to infection than men, but as wives, mothers, sisters or nurses of infected persons they have to bear more of the psychosocial and physical burden of AIDS care than men.
A new report by the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR) indicates that the greatest risk factor for women is unprotected sexual intercourse with their male partners; many are unaware that their partners engage in high-risk behavior, such as unprotected sex with multiple partners or homosexual sex.
All Guyanese, especially women, must take heed of this sobering information and act accordingly. It is a matter of life and death.