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Cultural Bias Against Women Hampering Fight Against AIDS in Africa

Africa is a region already ravaged by poverty and inter-tribal tensions. The cultural bias against women is making the fight against HIV/AIDS there terribly exhausting, almost fruitless, yet another report shows.

"If we are to reduce the continuing, extraordinary HIV prevalence in Botswana and Swaziland, particularly among women, the countries' leaders need to enforce women's legal rights," Karen Leiter, lead investigator of the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said.

"The impact of women's lack of power cannot be underestimated," she noted.

U.S.-based PHR, which was a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, said African governments and traditional social leaders were failing to ensure existing legal and constitutional protections for women's rights.

Almost 25 million Africans are infected with the HIV virus, giving the continent the worst AIDS burden in the world. Women make up 75 percent of HIV-positive Africans aged between 15-25.

The PHR study concentrated on the two African countries with the highest HIV prevalence rates -- Swaziland, where an estimated 33 percent of adults are infected, and Botswana, where about 24 percent carry the virus. Around 2,000 women in the two countries were covered by the study.

Researchers conducted random surveys on gender attitudes and sexual behaviour and concluded that greater social and economic inequality between the sexes directly correlated to the HIV risk faced by African women.

"Despite the differences in the two countries, the women in the samples have very similar demographics ... they were poorer, had a greater number of dependents, were less educated and were less food sufficient," Leiter said.

"They are compelled often by their circumstances to engage in sexual behaviour that raises their HIV risk."

The study points to four main aspects of the problem - Women's lack of control over sexual decision making, such as the decision to use a condom, and multiple partners by both men and women, prevalence of HIV-related stigma and discrimination, which hinders testing and disclosing of an HIV positive status, gender-discriminatory beliefs linked to sexual risk taking and failure of traditional and government leaders to promote the equality, autonomy, and economic independence of women.

The group recommended both African governments end discrimination against women in marriage, inheritance, property and employment laws, as well as strengthen legislation to end impunity for gender-based violence and ensure women are protected from violence in all forms, including marital rape.


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