Women More Vulnerable to HIV/AIDS Infection Than Men, Less Apt to Cope

Women are more biologically susceptible to HIV infection and are, especially in Africa, less able to cope with it due to cultural, social and economic factors, experts told the 14th International Conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa in Abuja, Nigeria.

"Nearly 60 percent of infections at the moment are in women, most of them in younger women," Helen Jackson, UN Population Fund's HIV/AIDS advisor for southern Africa, said today at the conference. "The physiological data seem to indicate it's something like twice as easy for women to become infected as for men."

In southern Africa, women ages 15-24 are at least three times more likely to be HIV-positive than men of the same age, due to physiological and sociocultural reasons. "Infection often occurs between older men and young women. There is a greater chance of the women's partners being HIV-positive," than if they had sex with same-age peers, "and the immature vaginal tract is more easily infected," said Jackson.

Financial dependence makes it difficult for women to negotiate condom use, or to refuse sex if they suspect the partner is infected. Monogamy does not always protect women, either.

"Among women surveyed in Harare, Durban and Soweto, 66 percent reported having one lifetime partner, 79 percent had abstained from sex at least until the age of 17. Yet 40 percent of the young women were HIV-positive," according to a UNAIDS report published this month.

Once infected, women's access to testing and treatment is in many ways dictated by the male partner, especially in rural societies.

In a keynote address to the conference, UNAIDS chief Peter Piot said "structural drivers" of the epidemic, including "sexual violence against women" and "inheritance and property rights for women," must be addressed.