India: Polygamous husbands behind rise in HIV/AIDS in women

The Hindu
The number of women living with HIV/AIDS is on the rise in the country and a recent UN survey found that in majority of the cases the disease was passed on by polygamous husbands.
"The surveillance data indicates that a significant proportion of new infections is occuring in women who are in monogamous relationships and have been infected by husbands or partners who have multiple sex partners," said a recent study 'Gender Impact of HIV/AIDS in India', carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
"Biological, socio-cultural and economic factors make women and young girls more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. The HIV virus is more easily transmitted from men to women than from women to men," it said.

The study -- carried out by UNDP, National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), and National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) -- was conducted to assess the socio-economic impact of HIV/AIDS in the six high prevalence states of India viz Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Manipur and Nagaland.

It found that in India, women account for around two million (39 per cent) of the approximately 5.2 million estimated cases of people living with HIV.

Of the 1,11,608 cases of AIDS reported in the country till July 31, 2005, females accounted for nearly 30 per cent, it says. The survey -- covering 2,068 HIV households and 6,224 non-HIV households -- interviewed 2,386 People Living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA).

It found that nearly 60 per cent of the HIV-positive widows are nearly less than 30 years of age and staying with their natal families after being thrown out from their marital homes following the death of their husbands.

"Women account for more than 70 per cent of caregivers when it comes to providing care to PLWHAs. It is a matter of concern that nearly 20 per cent of caregivers themselves are HIV positive and need relaxation and extra nutritional care themselves," the study says.

On the health status and health-seeking behaviour of women, it says, "There are significant gender differences in the percentages of untreated opportunistic infections (that further lead to HIV and AIDS). Not only the percentage of women's illnesses, which go untreated is higher than that of men, but in case of women, financial constraints turn out to be an important reason for not seeking treatment".

While assessing the impact on education of female children in HIV housholds, the study points out that due to limited resources, the girls are more likely to be withdrawn from schools than boys as they are expected to take care of their younger siblings and household chores.

The study also highlights the difference in the knowledge and awareness levels about HIV and AIDS in both men and women.

"As compared to men, a marginally lower percentage of women has heard about HIV and AIDS. When it comes to detail, women seem far less knowledgeable than men. While 63 per cent of men knew that HIV/AIDS could be prevented, only 51 per cent of women knew this fact."

On the issue of HIV positive widows, according to the study says, "The HIV widow households are spending less on food, whether cereals, pulses, raises the question of nutritional adequacy for these households. The HIV-positive widows face double burden as a widow and an HIV-positive person. Hardly 10 per cent of them are living with their husband's family."

The study recommends the need to design programmes to empower women to negotiate safe sex with their husbands, access to information on HIV and tailor-made programmes for HIV-positive widows.

"There is a need to empower adolscent girls and women by increasing their knowledge about their body and sexuality as well as about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI), HIV and AIDS. The facilities for the treatment of STI should be made more accessible by strengthening the existing services at primary and tertiary healthcare facilites," it suggests.

New Delhi, July 30 2006