Girl-Specific Guide to HIV

According to recent statistics more than half of the 40 million people in the world infected with HIV are women. A large percentage of those infected with the virus are young people aged 15 to 24, who now account for half of all new infections. Most disturbing however is that in Sub-Saharan Africa young women aged 15 to 24 account for 75 percent of all people infected with the virus. Girls are therefore approximately three times more likely to be infected than young men of the same age.i As a result, women, especially young girls are disproportionately more vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. International initiatives, government action and Non-Governmental Organizations have been for the most part inefficient in accurately responding to the challenge that AIDS has raised for women and young girls. A gender-based approach is crucial in dealing with the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

What factors put girls at a greater risk of contracting HIV and AIDS?

Globally, girls in particular and women in general, are more likely to be poor and powerless, have less education, less access to land, credit, or cash, and to other social services. In many countries, a woman’s right to divorce, her rights to property, and inheritance are not recognized, while in other countries though women’s rights are entrenched in the constitution and in the law they are often poorly enforced. These are some of the factors that prevent girls and women from having a viable means to support themselves and their children economically. Extreme poverty coupled with a lack of education and productive resources, increases the likelihood that girls and women must sell sex as their only economic means for survival. In many countries, “survival sex” has become common currency, as sex is traded for cash, food, shelter, sometimes even education.ii

Are girls more biologically predisposed to contracting HIV?

From a biological perspective, a girl’s immature female genital tract is more likely to tear during sexual activity which creates a higher risk of HIV transmission. These biological factors are further exacerbated by the economic and social inequalities that increase young girl’s vulnerability to infection. Together these aspects make girls and women more susceptible to contracting HIV and AIDS. Girls are disproportionately impacted by the virus primarily because they are biologically more vulnerable, but this is exacerbated by their increased risk of experiencing sexual violence, as well as entrenched gender-based inequalities which continue to compound their risk of infection.iii According to statistics, girls are getting infected with HIV faster than their male counterparts. In sub-Saharan Africa, two young girls aged 15 to 24 are infected for every boy in the same age group.iv In some worst hit areas, the statistics are even more alarming, as adolescents girls aged 15 to 19 are being infected at the rate of five or six for every male of the same age.v

How do gender inequalities manifest themselves?

  • Power relationships and differences in social norms about the inferior role of girls and women affect young women’s ability to control their sexualities. Young girl’s power is often limited in deciding when and with whom they engage in sexual activities, making them vulnerable to gender-based violence and coerced sexual intercourse.
  • Young girls are often forced into commercial sex with strangers or informal transactional sex in exchange for money, food or shelter.
  • Young girls tend to have sexual relations with older males. Sometimes this situation arises because males believe that young girls are free of HIV or AIDS and therefore see them as safer partners. These practices put girls at huge risk of contracting the disease since older males (because of their age) are more likely to have contracted Sexually Transmitted Diseases and/or HIV and AIDS, and are more likely to be the ones controlling the sexual situation. Sometimes this situation arises because girls feel they can use the relationship to secure financial help either to pay for school, food or other necessities. This renders them powerless and unable to refuse sexual advances.
  • In many cultures, girls and young women are expected to know little about sex and sexuality; this lack of knowledge directly exposes them to a much greater risk of HIV infection. In fact, surveys have shown that fewer girls than boys, aged 15 to 19 have basic knowledge about HIV and how to protect themselves from the disease.vi
  • Women constitute the majority of the world’s poor. Even though girls and women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, and produce half of the world’s food, they still earn only 10 percent of the world’s income, and own less than one percent of the world’s property.vii

Why do girls experience educational inequalities?

In many families where there are several children, parents can often only afford to send one or two of their children to school. Therefore they often make the education of their sons over their daughters a priority simply because of cultural and traditional norms that are deeply entrenched in the customs and practices of many communities. As a result, girls usually have fewer economic and educational opportunities than their male counterparts.

What are some factors that exacerbate the spreading of HIV?

Poverty: poverty compounds the vulnerability of youth, especially that of girls to HIV and AIDS. Young girls who also happen to be poor have a greater risk of infection because they tend to have less access to medical services, and they are more likely to leave sexually transmitted diseases untreated. Girl’s vulnerability is also increased if they come from poor families since living in poverty often puts pressure on them to exchange sex for money or goods that they and/or their families need.

Cultural Norms: There are also some cultural practices that exacerbate the spread of HIV and AIDS. Female genital mutilation which is practiced in some African countries has intensified the spread of HIV and AIDS with the use of unsterilized equipment such as kitchen knives and razor blades. In some countries in Africa it is also believed that having sex with a virgin can cure AIDS, making young girls and even babies vulnerable to being raped by older men who are infected with the virus. In many cultures where it is vital for girls to be virgins at marriage, girls’ vulnerability to contracting HIV and AIDS is increased as some girls engage in unsafe sexual practices such as unprotected anal intercourse making them exponentially more vulnerable to contracting the virusviii (this is because there is a greater likelihood of flesh tearing in anal intercourse). In many cultures girls are also expected to be ignorant about sex, for fear that they might seem promiscuous. This is reflected in survey’s that have found that far fewer girls than boys aged 15 to 19 have basic knowledge about HIV and AIDS.ix Alarmingly, half of the girls surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa did not realize that a healthy looking person can have HIV or AIDS. These culturally embedded norms often discourage young girls and women from accessing information and health care facilities further increasing their vulnerability to being exposed to and contracting HIV and AIDS without having enough knowledge about the risk that exposure can pose.

Armed Conflict: Civil wars and armed conflicts also increase the risk of women, children and especially young girls being exposed to HIV and AIDS. In countries where there is violence because of armed conflict or civil war children often experience prolonged separation from their family members, friends, and communities. Rape is a well know instrument of war.x Women and especially young girls are often exposed to sexual violence in crowded refugee camps and camps for the displaced. In addition, young girls are sometimes kidnapped, used as sexual slaves, tortured, and gang raped during the havoc and strife of conflict.

Physical and Sexual Violence: In many countries reported rapes and sexual violence are on the rise, though most acts of sexual violence still go unreported. There are some reports that state that a large percentage of new HIV infections are due to violence in homes, schools, the workplace, and other private and social settings.xi When sexual encounters are forced or coerced it renders women even more vulnerable to infection and the younger they are the more likely it is that they contract the HIV virusxii (because their flesh is more likely to tear during intercourse). Surveys conducted in nine Caribbean countries found that close to half of adolescent girls who had had intercourse reported that their first sexual encounter was forcedxiii

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