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(Embargoed until 3 December 2002, 0001 GMT)

Poverty and Gender Inequality: Catalysts for Spreading HIV/AIDS

UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK, 3 DECEMBER 2002 — HIV/AIDS accompanies poverty, is spread by poverty and produces poverty in its turn. Poverty’s many manifestations-undernourishment, lack of clean water, poor health services, weak immune systems, illiteracy and ignorance-all breed the infection.

In order to contain it, says The State of World Population 2002 report, more should be done to stop the spread of the infection. That includes providing vulnerable groups, particularly poor women, with adequate information about the disease and services to prevent it.

The disease is wiping out a whole generation of wage earners in some countries, forcing families and communities deeper into poverty, says the report, issued by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. It hits 14,000 men, women and children every day, making it the world’s fourth deadliest killer. It is the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa, where 3.5 million people were newly infected last year.

HIV/AIDS deprives children of their education as it kills teachers and leaves education systems in shambles. In the Central African Republic, 85 per cent of teachers who died between 1996 and 1998 were HIV positive. Côte d’Ivoire and Malawi lose at least one teacher every day. Still, only one in five people at risk of HIV have access to prevention information and services, such as condoms, and fewer than 5 per cent of people who need them get anti-retroviral drugs.

The combination of poverty and inequality between men and women promotes the spread of HIV/AIDS. Inequality prevents women from refusing risky practices, leading to coerced sex and sexual violence. Biology works against women, as their physiology is more vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Ignorance compounds women’s predicament. Although they are more at risk, many young women are unaware of the disease and how to prevent it. Only 11 per cent of participants in a survey in Zambia believed that a married woman could ask her husband to use a condom, even if she knew that he was possibly infected.

Stopping the spread of the infection will stop the pandemic, says the report, People, Poverty and Possibilities: Making Development Work for the Poor. Prevention requires adequate information and services, including emphasis on abstinence outside marriage and fidelity within it. The report recommends providing adequate supplies of male and female condoms, and creating the needed motivation for people to use them.

Effective policies were able to hold back the infection in a number of countries, including Senegal, Thailand and Uganda. Many leaders, however, have not yet recognized or admitted the nature of the advancing crisis. Many societies still do not know how to protect themselves against the infection, and do not consider this information suitable for young people. The universal culture of silence that surrounds sexual behaviour, says the report, has kept eyes covered and voices silenced.

The report calls for a stronger response to last year’s call by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to set up a global fund to help developing countries combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The initiative was intended to increase such assistance from under $2 billion to $7-10 billion every year. Despite vocal support, the international community has not yet provided the needed resources. The fund’s first round of grants, announced last April, included no more than $378 million.

“We will not stop the pandemic by treating it only as a disease,” says the report. Effective strategies to confront it should be based on a combination of prevention, education and treatment. Success also depends on strong and committed leadership to take these strategies beyond medicine and health care and reach into the community to consult and work with the people they seek to assist.

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UNFPA’s State of World Population report has been published annually since 1978. Each year, the report focuses on questions of current interest and concern for the future. The report is available online, at www.unfpa.org. For more information contact Micol Zarb, +1 212 297 5042, or zarb@unfpa.org.

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