What Women Should Know

All women should know about HIV. It is the virus that causes AIDS, a disease that weakens the body’s ability to fight infection and certain cancers. Having unprotected sex is the main way HIV is spread, especially in women. It also is spread through injection drug use or from mother to baby during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.

More and more women have become infected with HIV since it was first reported in the early 1980s. Today, about one in four Americans living with HIV is women. African American women are most affected; Hispanic women are the next group. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women aged 25 to 34.

The statistics are alarming but there is good news. Taking some simple steps can protect women from getting HIV, or prevent women from passing it to others, including their children. Also, while there is no cure yet, many women with HIV and AIDS are living longer and stronger lives thanks to a number of new treatments. Also, a wide variety of government resources are in place to help people living with HIV.

Women Preventing HIV

Education is one of the most effective tools in preventing HIV. Women like men need to be educated on getting tested to know their HIV status. They also must feel empowered to discuss sex, HIV, and testing with their partners and to use barriers to protect themselves. There are a number of things that can be addressed in order to prevent the spread of HIV infection. However, the following are relatively new and upcoming preventative methods that could directly benefit women.

  • The female condom is the only female-initiated HIV prevention method presently available. These condoms can potentially help women to protect themselves from becoming infected with HIV if used correctly and consistently. However, although the female condom allows partners to share the responsibility of condom use, it still requires some degree of male cooperation.
  • There is an antiretroviral drug treatment that could potentially benefit women who have been sexually assaulted, if started within 72 hours of exposure. This drug is not fully approved for “any” unprotected sexual encounter and is expensive. Also, in many countries with high levels of sexual violence against women and high HIV prevalence, this treatment is not always freely available to women. Government officials are still working on the recommendations.
  • Research is being carried out into the development of a gel or cream that could be applied to the vagina without a partner knowing and which would prevent HIV infection. Trials have been taking place for a number of years, but none have been successful so this does not exist yet for HIV prevention.

Inequalities within the family

Protecting women from HIV is not solely women’s responsibility. Most women with HIV were infected by unprotected sex with an infected man. Preventing transmission is the responsibility of both partners, and men must play an equal role in this.

In some societies, women have few rights within sexual relationships and the family. Often men make the majority of decisions, such as whom they will marry and whether they will have more than one sexual partner. This power imbalance means that it can be more difficult for women to protect themselves from getting infected with HIV. For example, a woman may not be able to insist on the use of a condom if her husband is the one who makes the decisions.

Marriage does not always protect a woman from becoming infected with HIV. Many new infections occur within marriage or long-term relationships as a result of unfaithful partners. In a number of societies, a man having more than one sexual partner is seen as the norm.

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