“Spread of HIV among girls in Africa is a crisis of gender inequality”, says UNAIDS

Published in: 01/12/2022 – 14:55

On December 1st, World AIDS Day is celebrated, an epidemic that still kills around 650,000 people worldwide every year. In an interview with RFI, the director of Unaids, Winnie Byanyima, shows how the worsening of social inequalities has contributed to increase contamination, especially in Africa, the region of the world most affected by the disease. Gender inequalities also heighten the impact of viral infection among African women and girls.

Simon Roseand RFI

Several countries in the world have registered an increase in the number of infections by the HIV virus, undermining decades of committed efforts to reduce cases of the disease. The new annual report by Unaids (Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS) warns that the growing weight of inequalities is hampering advances in health policies.

According to Ugandan Winnie Byanyima, the fight against AIDS has been affected by several factors. “We weren’t doing very well a few years ago, then Covid-19 arrived and its economic consequences compromised many things”, she says. “When we were trying to recover, the war in Ukraine came, which led to high prices for fuel, food, the cost of living, leaving many countries in difficulties,” she laments.

In low- and middle-income countries in Africa, managing expenditure on health, education and social protection has become complicated. “Many underprivileged countries also suffered cuts in development aid programs, in addition to the devaluation of their currencies against the dollar”, points out Winnie Byanyima. “This economic context of worsening inequalities is taking us in the wrong direction”, warns the director of Unaids.

When analyzing the data on the evolution of AIDS in recent years, it is clear, she says, that inequalities act as an engine for the expansion of the epidemic. In order to maintain the goal of eradicating the HIV pandemic by 2030, structural changes are needed, points out the report entitled “Dangerous inequalities”.

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima in December 2020 image. © UNAIDS

Education is key to containing the pandemic

About 54% of all people infected with HIV live in the eastern and southern regions of the African continent. “When you look in detail, you see that in the age group of 15 to 24 years, three out of four new infections affect girls and young women”, points out the director of Unaids. “This is a crisis of gender inequality. Women and girls are more likely to be infected, which is related to sexual violence and, in most cases, unwanted sex”, highlights the UN representative.

The causes of this dramatic reality include the lack of safe access to school, the economic dependence of these women and girls, sex paid for survival, all circumstances related to poverty, which increase the risk of HIV contamination. Winnie Byanyima believes that guaranteeing girls and teenagers access to school would already reduce the risk of infection by half. “If they are given sex education, the risk is further reduced,” she assures her.

Despite this gloomy picture, the UN is pleased that 12 countries have joined the new “More Education” program, an ambitious plan to develop secondary education and introduce sex education programs in schools. “One of the things we’re trying to do is fight toxic masculinity in boys, to make them aware of how to be respectful people who don’t force a girl to have sex without her consent,” explains Winnie Byanyima to RFI🇧🇷 “It is this type of action that will reduce the inequalities that impact girls”, he adds.

Among the male population in the most affected regions of Africa, the last ten years have seen a reduction in new AIDS infections and deaths. But not among homosexuals. The explanation is that homosexuality is still considered a crime in many nations. Gay men are forced to hide the disease to avoid arrest and end up without access to medical care.

“They face the gaze of society, which does not let them assume their sexuality and get what they need”, reports the director of Unaids. The decriminalization of homosexuality needs to move forward, as has happened in recent years in Gabon, Botswana, Angola and in some Caribbean countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Another inequality that deserves particular attention from the UN is access to antiretroviral treatment. Currently, 75% of HIV-positive adults receive treatment to prevent the development or effects of AIDS. But, in the case of seropositive children, only 52% of them are on treatment.