HIV and gender

What about prevention for women specifically?

Women often experience the impact of HIV more severely than men, due to a combination of social, economic and biological factors. Young women have a slightly higher risk of being infected with HIV because the opening of the womb (cervix) has not acquired sufficient maturity and thickness to act as an effective barrier. Women comprise about half of all people living with HIV worldwide.

If you are a woman, you should be aware of your right to protect yourself against HIV and know how to do so. Gender-based abuse and violence and discrimination against women make them more vulnerable to HIV. Gender norms in your country, for example, may dictate that as a woman you should be uninformed and passive about sex. This may leave you less able to negotiate safer sex or to access appropriate services. Many women are infected with HIV by their long-time trusted partners or husbands, so it is important to negotiate safer sex in an established relationship as well as with a new partner. To protect yourself against HIV, it is essential to learn the appropriate skills you need to negotiate safer sex if you choose to have sexual relations, to be able to access support services such as women's refuges in the event of gender-based violence and to be able to rely on police and justice processes to provide protection if necessary.

Reversing the underlying socioeconomic factors contributing to women's increased HIV risk--gender inequality, poverty, lack of economic and educational opportunity, lack of legal and human rights protections--is critical. Each individual has a responsibility to protect themselves and others from exposure to HIV, especially men who have the social power to influence (other) men to protect themselves and their sexual partners.

Are women more vulnerable to HIV infection than men?

Yes. Approximately half of the people living with HIV are women. The highest HIV prevalence found among women is in countries where the epidemic has become generalized; women living with HIV have mainly become infected in heterosexual relationships and often in a marriage context. A number of biological, social, cultural and economic factors contribute to women's vulnerability to HIV.

  • Biological factors: the female genital tract has a greater exposed surface area than the male genital tract; therefore, women may be prone to greater risk of infection with every exposure. Younger women are even more vulnerable to HIV infection due to immaturity of the opening of the womb.
  • Economic disempowerment: pressure to provide income for themselves or their families leads some women to engage in "transactional" sex with men who give them money, school fees or gifts in exchange for sex. In some regions this is particularly true for younger women who engage in sex with older men. Women who are economically dependent may not be able to insist on condom use.
  • Migrant husbands: many women, especially those in rural areas, are infected by their husbands who work away from home for long periods, for example, as miners, truckers, or soldiers and engage in unprotected sex while away. These men may get infected with HIV and, upon returning home, can transmit it to their wives.
  • Child marriage: it is still common in many parts of the world for young girls to marry before they are 18 years old. Most often, they marry older, sexually experienced men who may already be infected with HIV and transmit it to their young wives.
  • Violence: one in three women worldwide will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Sexual violence is prone to increase the risk of infection as it can damage the vaginal wall through the violent act, allowing infected semen direct contact with underlying tissue. Coerced sex can also deny women the ability to insist on condom use.
Did you know ...
  • Out of 11.8 million young people (aged 15-24) living with AIDS, 7.3 million are young women and 4.5 are young men?
  • 18.5 million of the 37 million adults (aged 15 to 49) living with HIV are women. In North Africa and the Middle East, 54 per cent of the HIV positive adults are women; in the Caribbean, the proportion has reached 52 per cent?
  • Transmission from men to women is two times more likely than from women to men? The risk is especially high in the case of unwilling sex with an infected partner since condom use is unlikely?
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa, teenage girls are 5 times more likely to be infected than boys, since girls are mostly infected not by boys their own age, but by older men? (these statistics are from UNIFEM's Website)

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