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U.N. says AIDS battle will fail without progress on women's rights

U.N. says AIDS battle will fail without progress on women's rights

The global battle against HIV will ultimately fail unless serious progress is made on women's rights in the developing world, the United Nations says. The pandemic is increasingly taking on a feminine face as it enters its globalization phase, and the lack of women's equality--from poverty and stunted education to rape and denial of women's inheritance and property rights--is a major obstacle to victory over the virus, according to the latest global HIV status report published Tuesday. Violence against women is a worldwide scourge, but it is feeding the HIV epidemic in the developing world, where women and girls often don't have the power to say no to sex or to insist on condom use, according to the report. For millions of other women, sex is their only currency. "The fact that the balance of power in many relationships is tilted in favor of men can have life-or-death implications," concluded the report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. "These factors are not easily dislodged or altered, but until they are, efforts to contain and reverse the AIDS epidemic are unlikely to achieve sustained success." Nearly 50% of the 39.4 million people infected with HIV worldwide are women. In regions where the epidemic is mature, more women are infected than men, and in countries where epidemics are just beginning, new infections among women outnumber those among men, and the gap continues to widen. East Asia experienced the sharpest increase in the number of women infected with HIV in the past two years: 56%. Eastern Europe and Central Asia come next, with infections among women rising 48% in the past two years. In the Caribbean, where the crisis rate of HIV infection is second only to sub-Saharan Africa, young women are twice as likely as men their age to become infected. Part of the reason for the rapid increase is that it is physically easier for women to get HIV through intercourse than it is for men to get it from women. In many parts of the world, stressing marriage and long-term monogamous relationships doesn't protect women from HIV because they are unable to control whether they have sex. The approach favored by the American anti-AIDS package also could backfire in areas where being married actually increases the risk of contracting HIV, research has found. One study conducted in several areas of Kenya and Zambia found that HIV infection levels among teenage girls were 10% higher for married girls than for those who were sexually active but not married. Similar findings have been reported in Uganda. Married women in some African countries are more at risk for HIV than unmarried ones because young women often marry men much older than themselves for financial security and these men are more likely to have had other partners and thus been exposed to HIV, the report found. AIDS has to be the catalyst for women's rights in the developing world, says UNAIDS director Peter Piot. "There was reason enough before AIDS, but now the link between the whole gender inequality and death has never been so direct as with AIDS," Piot said. "If AIDS is not enough to shift the agenda for women, then what is enough?" (AP)

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