It is an almost universally held belief that the biggest factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS is poverty. If that were true, poverty should correlate with higher HIV/AIDS rates but, as Steve Kraus, HIV/AIDS Branch Chief for UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, reminds me: HIV/AIDS and poverty do not correlate elegantly.
If you look at global national data, the fact is that the world’s poorest nations do not have the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. While true that two-thirds of the people living with HIV/AIDS are in sub-Saharan Africa – the poorest region in the world – the rates by African country do not neatly match up to the poverty index.
Some of the highest prevalence rates are in South Africa and Swaziland, two of Africa’s comparatively richest nations (and middle income countries by global standards). Yet prevalence rates are less than 2% in Niger and Mali, among the poorest nations in the world.
What’s going on?
The truth is that cultural norms, particularly as they relate to sex and marriage, women’s status and women’s economic power, have more to do with the spread of HIV than poverty. The primary drivers of HIV/AIDS are major social problems: gender inequality and stigma. A woman cannot control her own risk factors if she has no power in her relationships with men.
We will never get a handle on the spread of HIV unless the view of women in much of the world is transformed. Will there be a day where it will not be a bold, out of the box idea that elevating the status of women alone, would hugely impact the spread of HIV?
I hope so. And I hope that the dawn of such a day occurs soon.
Anika Rahman, a well-known international advocate for the rights of women, is the President of Americans for UNFPA where she is responsible for building American legislative and financial support for the promotion of women’s health and rights globally. For more than fifteen years, Ms. Rahman has monitored and analyzed United States and international policies that affect the health and rights of women.