AIDS is a disease not just of sex but of sexism. In the Third World, where AIDS is most rampant, the disease spreads because male promiscuity is admired and female subservience expected. In southern Africa, where the disease takes its worst toll, men often have many sexual partners. Their wives and girlfriends are conditioned not to object. If they do, they may risk a beating. Few women have the self-confidence to insist on the use of a condom during sex. Many are not even aware that condoms are necessary.
Promiscuous men; compliant, uninformed women. The result is sadly predictable. Worldwide, more than 16 million women have the AIDS virus and last year 1.3 million died as a result. In Botswana, eye of the AIDS storm, 30 per cent of women under the age of 25 have the virus, while the rate for men is about half that. Surveys have shown that half the young women in countries such as Haiti, Zaire and Zambia are completely unaware of the risk of having unprotected sex. As long as the man appears to be healthy, they believe it is all right.
These women are victims of their own powerlessness. Because their status in society is so low, they cannot or do not take the measures they should to protect themselves from a deadly disease. That is why improving the status of women -- along with changing the behaviour of men -- is so important in the fight against AIDS. Unless women gain the power to say no, the disease will continue its relentless spread.
Empowering women in developing countries will not be easy. It has taken at least a century of struggle in the developed world, and the job is still far from complete. Everyone needs to feel better than someone, and men in developing countries will not readily give up their social position or their sexual freedom.
But progress can be made. Educating women in developing countries has proved an effective method of improving community health, so investing in schooling for girls should be a priority. So should providing information to young women about the dangers of having unprotected sex. Knowledge is power, and women will continue to be in danger as long as they live under the curse of ignorance.
Yesterday, at a special United Nations session, a parade of sober statesmen talked about how to fight the AIDS pandemic. They talked about a multi-billion-dollar fund to fight the disease. They talked about making anti-retroviral drugs more available to the poor. They talked about the need to erase the stigma carried by the disease.
Good ideas all. But until women can lift the yoke of oppression from their necks, until they can take some control of their sexual lives, even the most creative programs for fighting AIDS are bound to come up short.