When I was a freshman in college (back in the 20th century) I had a lecture class that was designed to open our eyes, both literally and figuratively, to the world early in our scholarly endeavors. I clearly remember the first day of that lecture when the professor told us that “in 10 years one out of every 12 men in this room will be infected with HIV/Aids.” Back then HIV/Aids was a man’s disease. It was introduced to us as an illness brought on by homosexual male sex and would affect largely men. Although the illness was gut-wrenchingly tragic back then for lack of developed drugs to control it, and the numbers of new infections were staggering, women and girls felt largely immune.
Today, the face of AIDS is changing, and it is decidedly more female. According to the World Health organization (WHO) exactly one half of the world’s AIDS population is female. That represents 20 million women worldwide. In fact, the CDC says that “ if new HIV infections continue at their current rate worldwide, women with HIV may soon outnumber men with HIV”. (http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/women/index.htm ). The number of women living with HIV/Aids today may even be higher than the 20 million documented, since across wide swaths of this earth AIDS is still a stigma and never properly diagnosed in women. So it would not be unreasonable to say that perhaps already, more than half of the earth’s modern Aids victims are female.
In parts of Africa, men who contract AIDS are convinced, through a combination of superstition and folklore, that they can cure themselves by raping a female virgin. That leaves a population of women vulnerable to the most heinous of attacks, compounded by the attendant death sentence that the attack is likely to pass on. Victims as young as 2 and as old as 70 have been reported. In India, the fastest growing segment of the population becoming infected with AIDS are young women. That is largely because, according Dr. Suniti Solomon, Founding Director of the YRG CARE Center in Chennai – India, young men who have AIDS are too timid to come forward with the stigmatized disease and keep it a secret from their young brides and their families. Often, not only do their young brides contract the disease, but tragically, so do the children they forcibly bear. (http://www.explore.org/interviews/dr-suniti-solomon/).
Here in the States, according to the CDC, the incidents of AIDS in adolescent and adult women rose dramatically from 7% in 1985 to 26% in 2002. More than 10% of new cases reported occur in women under the age of 25. (see: http://womenshealth.about.com/od/aidshiv/a/hivaids.htm). In the developed world, successful antiretroviral therapies help to prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS and can relieve the immediate death sentence that the disease carries with it in underdeveloped parts of the world, where medical care and modern medicine are not readily available.
The primary method of HIV transmission worldwide is through heterosexual sex. Over 90% of new adolescent and adult HIV infections occur in this manner (although in the US that percentage dwindles down to 42%). Anjali Gopalan, Founder of the NAZ Foundation (India) Trust in New Delhi, runs a home and shelter/orphanage for women and children living with HIV. (http://www.nazindia.org/about.htm).
One of her biggest challenges is to advocate for young women and children who find themselves rejected by their families once they have contracted HIV/AIDS from their husbands, who have often died or otherwise abandoned them. These women have no means by which to care for themselves or provide for their children, who are often also HIV Positive. Girls, she observes, are married off at a younger and younger age and are incapable of caring for themselves and their children under the best of circumstances. Once they reach the NAZ Foundation with HIV/Aids they have been rejected and shun by everyone they know and have nowhere else to turn. The orphaned children are often stigmatized and prevented from being able to join mainstream society. They need support, education and psychological help to regain some dignity and be able to go on to contribute to society, rather than remaining ostracized for the rest of their young lives.
Across the African continent, HIV/Aids is spread most prolifically through rape. Men, it turns out, rape because of a sense of sexual entitlement, according to two studies done by Rachel Jewkes in South Africa. “Other popular motivating factors included a desire to punish women who rejected or angered them, and raping out of boredom”, observes Jewkes. (see: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101126/ap_on_re_af/af_south_africa_rape).
In Zimbabwe, the myth that that if a man rapes a virgin he can cure his AIDS, has perpetuated the steady increase of Aids in the African subcontinent, and exacerbated efforts to introduce drug treatments and a drive toward education about HIV/Aids. In the meantime, it has left countless girls and women raped and infected with Aids. Both the rape and the infection carry with them the stigma that prevents these girls, in most cases, from returning to their families, ever being able to marry, or to re-join their communities. They are ostracized and shun and must rely on the aid of outsiders to stay alive. (http://www.tapestriesofhope.com/).
So now tell me, in the 21st century, is HIV/Aids still a problem afflicting mostly men? Or is it fast becoming one of the biggest problems facing women around the globe? The readily transmittable nature of HIV/Aids, coupled with the prevalence of rape, forced child marriage and the severe stigma still attached to HIV/Aids around the world makes this disease an ominous threat for the world’s impoverished women.