Women And HIV in The Middle East And North Africa

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Women are on the frontlines of HIV across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Of the estimated470,000 [340,000 – 540,000] people living with HIV in MENA, approximately 40% are women. Theirnumbers are set to grow: MENA is one of only two regions of the world where new HIV infections, andAIDS-related deaths, continue to rise. The majority of countries in MENA are witnessing concentratedepidemics, among most-at-risk-populations, and in most countries, sex is the main route of transmission.This means that women are touched both directly—as injecting drug users or sex workers—andindirectly—as the sexual partners of clients, or injecting drug users, or men who also have sex with men.Wives are hit particularly hard: in a number of countries, the majority of women living with HIV havebeen infected by their husbands.

A complex set of social, economic and cultural factors make women across MENA especially vulnerable toHIV. While female literacy and education has advanced over the past decade, this has not translated intoa significantly greater presence in the workplace. Female unemployment rates are at least double thoseof men across the region, and even higher among female youth. Economic insecurity increases women’svulnerability to HIV. Condom use is rare, within and outside of marriage; significant proportions ofwomen have been shown, in studies across the region, to experience gender-based violence, both at homeand in public places.

But it’s not just economics that it is putting women at risk. Cultural norms that favour men, mistakenlycloaked in religion and reflected in national law in many countries, increase women’s vulnerability.This is particularly true when it comes to questions of sexuality, in which women are held to doublestandards of virginity and sexual monogamy. Young women in particular have fewer opportunities toseek out information on sexual and reproductive health, a situation reflected in significantly lower levelsof knowledge of HIV/AIDS than their male counterparts. Social constraints—particularly on unmarriedwomen—make it difficult to access sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV prevention andtesting.