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Breaking the ties that bind us: A call for action against women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS


20 May 2006
Why we need to take action now

There are 17.5 million women living with HIV in the world, a majority of them in developing countries. Over 13 million women are living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, and almost two million in South and South East Asia.
Prevalence rates among women have grown significantly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia since the year 2000. Recent reports show the Russian Federation has 440,000 women living with HIV/AIDS, which makes it the biggest AIDS epidemic in Europe—and this number is not thought to reflect actual levels.
Globally, women are 1.6 times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than men.
Women are biologically more prone to contracting HIV. Small lesions can occur through sexual intercourse that can be entry points for the virus. The female genital tract has a greater exposed surface area than the male one. Genital tissue is less mature in younger women, putting them at greater risk. But older women also face increased risk of infection. Women who reach menopause may have less natural lubrication during intercourse, leading to more micro lesions.
When it comes to basic forms of protection against HIV, women can face serious opposition. Asking a man to use a condom can be seen as challenging his sexual authority and the community’s cultural norms. Women’s roles as wives, mothers, daughter-in-laws, domestic workers and caregivers, together with pressures to perform marital duties and produce children, give them little bargaining power when it comes to their sexual and reproductive rights. Women who attempt to protect themselves from HIV can face serious, even tragic consequences.
They risk psychological and physical abuse, abandonment, eviction, shunning, and being stripped of resources. Social, economic, political, religious and cultural realities and customs join biology to make women especially vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. The unequal gender roles of women and men, often as product and cause of many of these various factors, function to bind women to their circumstances so as to make their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS sometimes seem insurmountable.
Women generally have less power and autonomy than men. This manifests itself as unequal participation and partnership between men and women in most spheres of life, and the overall devaluation of women’s fulfilment as human beings, personal, social and physical wellness, and even life. We, of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR), believe the vulnerability of women and girls to HIV/AIDSc an be overcome and avoided. Policies, laws, regulations, programmes and practices that empower women and safeguard their human rights, including their reproductive and sexual rights, can be lobbied and advocated for where are they are missing and protected where they exist. We also do not need to wait for help but can take action to break the ties that binds us, now!
The who and how of this call for action
We seek to mobilize everyone concerned with the state of women’s health around the world to take up activities that can put women’s reproductive and sexual health and rights at the centre of the response to HIV/AIDS. We also want to promote actions that push back against women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.
In addition to being an awareness-raising and mobilization tool, this call for action is a capacity-building tool. It contains concrete suggestions for lobbying, advocacy, campaigning, and public actions that can be taken at the local, national, regional, and global levels. The main text covers the reasons why women are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than men and what we can do about it.
Additional sections include mini-resource guides on international agreements and articles to which we can turn to increase our knowledge and support our advocacy arguments.
Download the call for action.

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