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August 12, 2009

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Risky behavior by men tied to HIV in females

FIFTY million women in Asia are at risk of being infected with HIV because of the risky sexual behavior of their husbands or boyfriends, leading health experts said in a report yesterday.

More than 90 percent of the 1.7 million women now living with HIV in Asia became infected while in monogamous, long-term relationships with men who engaged in risky sex behavior, the report launched by UNAIDS said.

These include men who had other sexual partners or who were drug users.

"We need to target men who engage in paid sex, injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, who can transmit the virus to their partners," Jean D'Cunha, regional director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women in South Asia, told a news conference held on the margins of an HIV/AIDS conference in Bali, Indonesia.

"We need to question attitudes, values and behavior and transform these so that women would be less vulnerable to HIV/AIDS."

While the issue of gender inequality is often ignored or laughed off, experts say it cannot be taken lightly in the context of HIV/AIDS, a disease that can be transmitted through sexual contact and which is incurable.

Sex workers, who have very little bargaining power to begin with, are usually forced to comply when their clients refuse to use condoms. Back home, the wives of these men too have no power to demand that condoms be used even if they know about the risky sexual behavior of their husbands.

While the fight against the AIDS epidemic has seen progress on some fronts, women continue to bear the brunt of it. Women make up 35 percent of all adult HIV infections in Asia now, up from 17 percent in 1990.

Maire Bopp-Allport, head of the Pacific Islands Aids Foundation, contracted the AIDS virus from her boyfriend around 1996. Today, she is a familiar figure in the global fight against the disease.

"At the heart of the issue is thousands of years of education to our males that it's OK to think that women are there to simply serve them and do everything they want. We need to bring a new culture where it's not OK," she said.


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