Women's Human Rights

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Women and HIV/AIDS

The deadly link between women's rights abuses and the spread of HIV/AIDS is slowly gaining recognition, but not before millions of women lost their lives to the disease. Evidence indicates that women especially at risk are those in a heterosexual marriage or long-term union in a society where men commonly engage in sex outside the union and women confront abuse if they demand condom use. Every day, in every corner of the world, women and girls are beaten in their homes, trafficked into forced prostitution, raped by soldiers and rebels in armed conflicts, sexually abused by their "caretakers," deprived equal rights to property and other economic assets, assaulted for not conforming to gender norms, and often left with no option but to trade sex for survival. Some are "inherited" by male in-laws when they become widows, often becoming wives in polygamous families. These acts of discrimination and violence are conduits for HIV infection. Women living with AIDS confront not only stigma, but also the deprivations caused by violations of their rights. Relative to the scale and severity of these abuses, laws, policies, and programs to combat HIV/AIDS by protecting the rights of women and girls are negligible. 

The relationship between abuses of women's rights and their vulnerability to AIDS is acutely clear in Africa, where 58 percent of those infected with HIV are women. Infection rates among adolescent girls and young women in much of Africa are strikingly higher than those of their male counterparts, exposing the disturbing reality that young women face appalling levels abuse and discrimination. In Uganda, domestic violence prevents women from freely accessing HIV/AIDS information, from negotiating condom use, and from resisting unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner, yet the government has failed to take any meaningful steps to prevent and punish such abuse. In Kenya, simply because of their gender, many women AIDS victims sink into poverty and will die even sooner because customs condone evicting women from their homes and taking their property upon their husband's death. In Zambia, orphan girls are often sexually abused at the hands of their guardians, including family members and teachers. In South Africa, the government is lagging in its commitment to provide post-exposure prophylaxis to rape survivors, and girls are deterred from attending school because of high rates of sexual violence and harassment. The scale of these abuses, already unimaginable, is sure to grow as AIDS shatters the lives of women and girls on this continent in the years to come. 

Entrenched gender inequality also compounds the discrimination suffered by people living with HIV/AIDS in other regions. In Latin America and the Caribbean-the region with the second highest HIV prevalence rate after sub-Saharan Africa-women increasingly constitute the majority if those newly infected. Even so, the government in the Dominican Republic, for example, has failed to take women's rights violations seriously in HIV/AIDS prevention plans. Women are illegally subjected to HIV testing without informed consent, and those who test positive are routinely fired and denied public healthcare. In addition, public health professionals routinely reveal HIV test results to women's families without the tested individuals knowledge or consent, exposing them to violence and abuse.