United Nations officials today marked the 17th annual World AIDS Day by calling for societies to enable women to protect themselves at a time when nearly half of the 37.2 million people infected are female.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said although women were generally more faithful to their male partners and less likely to inject drugs, they remained more vulnerable to infection because of poverty and a lack of information. Another factor, he said, is "men having several concurrent sexual relationships that entrap young women in a giant network of infection."
Marriage does not always afford protection, he said in a message issued at UN Headquarters. "In some heavily affected countries, married women have higher rates of HIV infection that their unmarried, sexually active peers."
"These factors cannot be addressed piecemeal," Mr. Annan said. The needed social improvements could only be brought about through "the education of girls, through legal and social reforms and through greater awareness and responsibility among men."
Addressing a separate World AIDS Day meeting organized in New York by the world's six largest financial companies, Mr. Annan said India and China have both seen an increase in their HIV prevalence rates. India's Andhra Pradesh state, a major hub of Western business outsourcing, has been hard hit, while the pandemic has now spread to all 31 provinces in China.
Mr. Annan recommended that his audience read the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) voluntary code for action at corporate, community and national levels, including working for HIV-prevention and they could also turn to the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, a consortium led by former U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Richard Holbrooke.
In addition to using their business skills to improve the social marketing of HIV prevention, businesses could also contribute to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he said, referring to an initiative he pioneered.
Although the epidemic has been spreading everywhere, the Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Dr. Peter Piot, noted that in the past two years the steepest rises in infection have occurred in East and Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
"Women who are economically self-sufficient and secure are far less vulnerable to HIV," he said. "We need to get laws passed everywhere that make domestic abuse illegal, that treat rape as a real crime to be punished harshly."
Calling for such "life-saving tools" as female condoms and microbicides, the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, said, "Women and girls know less than men about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, and what little they do know is often rendered useless by the discrimination and violence they face."
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) said no reliable data exist on what proportion of AIDS patients receiving treatment are women. It released two documents designed to ensure equitable access to treatment by the marginalized, including women and girls: one a policy paper on actions to reduce gender inequality and the second providing guidance on ethics and equitable access to HIV treatment and care.
"To ensure equitable access to prevention and treatment services for women and girls, it is important for countries to set their own national targets," WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook, said.
"The right to health is not realized when women are denied adequate prevention, treatment and care services, including health-related education and information, voluntary counselling and testing and appropriate medication," said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Louise Arbour in a statement issued jointly with other UN human rights experts.
The two UN food agencies, meanwhile, focused on nutrition and food production for education and survival.
The 5-to-14 age group was least likely to be infected, especially if educated, providing a "'window of opportunity' to raise an HIV/AIDS-free generation" by feeding them in school. This could increase their general and HIV-prevention education, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said.
Requesting more donations, it added that it was providing a nutritious daily school meal to 15.2 million children in 69 countries.
As the epidemic created an agricultural "knowledge gap" in affected countries, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said it had helped to set up schools in Mozambique where 1,000 orphans and other vulnerable children were learning to farm.
After that successful experience, it was launching similar schools in Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, FAO said.
"Fighting AIDS is our common endeavour," said UN General Assembly President Jean Ping of Gabon. The UN's 60th anniversary and the high level meeting on HIV/AIDS next year would "offer opportunities for all the countries of the world to review the progress made to date in this fight and to think collectively about more effective measures against HIV/AIDS."