Despite widespread progress over the past 40 years, AIDS remains the leading killer of women aged 15-49, according to a new report by UNAIDS, released to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8.
The threat posed by AIDS is directly proportional to the degree of gender inequality around the world, the report argues. Because women are denied basic human rights in various countries, and face systematic discrimination and abuse wordlwide, AIDS is more dangerous than it would otherwise be.
“The HIV epidemic holds a mirror up to the inequalities and injustices faced by women and girls and how the gaps in rights and services are exacerbating the epidemic,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, said in a statement. “This is unacceptable, it is avoidable, and it must end.”
Today, more than 37.9 million people live with the disease and 24 million have access to treatment options, including 13 million girls and women over the age of 15, the UN reported.
The UN also noted that new infections have been declining for more than 15 years.
However, inequalities around the world perpetuate the spread of HIV and prevent certain groups from getting medical help.
More than 6,000 women die from AIDS-related illnesses every week, the report said.
The report argues that women are more susceptible to HIV in situations where their rights are systematically denied. For example, women are 50% more likely to get HIV when they experience intimate partner violence in areas with high rates of HIV.
Women are more likely to get HIV when they’re denied an education, prevented from achieving economic independence, and cut off from medical treatment.
Each additional year of schooling in Botswana, for example, leads to a 12% decrease in a girl’s likelihood of acquiring HIV, according to the report.
The lack of comprehensive sexual education programs around the world, and ongoing stigmas surrounding sexuality kroe broadly, leads to higher rates of HIV.
The report argues that countries that fail to protect the economic interests of women see an increase in the prevalence of HIV. It adds that achieving the economic, civic, interpersonal, and sexual freedom of women is critical to containing the AIDS epidemic.
The report outlines a number of solutions to the crisis.
Among other things, countries have to champion gender equality in all aspects of society, invest in education systems, reform laws that discriminate against women, expand access to health care, create systems to reduce violence against women, and engage women in HIV advocacy initiatives.
“Women and adolescent girls are demanding their rights,” Byanyima said. “Governments must act on those demands by providing resources and services to protect their rights and properly respond to their needs and perspectives.”