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Empower women to fight Aids

Image: AFP

World Aids Day on Friday December 1 seems to have gone by with little fanfare. It could be that we are beginning to pay less attention to the scourge of HIV because of the strides we've made in the implementation of HIV treatment.

South Africa has the biggest treatment programme in the world and less people are dying than was the case a decade ago. But this is not a reason for complacency.

According to the latest Stats SA estimates, South Africa has more than seven million people with HIV this year, the highest in the world. This is a huge jump from the estimated 4.94million people with HIV in 2002.

This means that the success of our treatment programme is not having an impact on preventing new infections but only in ensuring that those who are infected live longer and healthier lives.

There is an even more concerning phenomenon revealed by the data. It is estimated that one fifth of women aged 15-49 are living with HIV. These are young women in their reproductive years and they are disproportionately affected.

But this is no coincidence because other data shows that young women, particularly black women, are also disproportionately affected by poverty and unemployment.

The high rate of infection among this demographic also occurs in the context of high levels of violence and abuse against women by their intimate partners.

Young women are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation by men who use their relatively superior economic position to take advantage of them.

In a patriarchal society like South Africa, young women find themselves up against notions and perceptions that seem to justify older men's right over their bodies and sexuality.

Women's agency and choice in sexual matters continue to be undermined despite the progressive legislation on women's rights and equality.

The fight against HIV and Aids is far from over, particularly now that it is has become gendered.

More needs to be done now not only to raise awareness about prevention but these efforts must have a greater slant towards empowering young women to be in the position to assert themselves in matters of sexuality.

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