Women's rights key to Africa AIDS crisis: study
By Andrew Quinn
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Improving women's rights could boost the battle against AIDS in southern African countries, where women are often forced into risky sex by male partners or economic desperation, a new report said on Friday.
Physicians for Human Rights said its study of 2,000 women in Botswana and Swaziland showed inequality and gender discrimination were major factors behind a pandemic which has seen the two countries struggle with the worst AIDS crises in the world.
"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," study co-author Karen Leiter said in a statement.
"The impact of women's lack of power cannot be underestimated."
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.
Researchers conducted random surveys on gender attitudes and sexual behavior 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 behavior that raises their HIV risk."
Economic dependence on men meant that women often lose control of their sexual choices, including whether or not to use a condom, while social inequality meant that men and women are held to different standards of behavior when it comes to multiple sexual partners, the report said.
In Botswana, for example, researchers found that survey participants who reported higher levels of discriminatory beliefs about the role of women were almost three times as likely to have had unprotected sex with a non-primary partner on the previous year.
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.
In particular, both Botswana and Swaziland need to work to end discrimination against women in marriage, inheritance, property and employment rights and boost efforts to end domestic and sexual violence against women.