Women need empowerment in fight against AIDS: U.N.

BEIJING (Reuters) - Women must be more involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS, a disease increasingly being spread through sex, and men must also be encouraged to respect women more, a senior U.N. official said Friday.

A member of the medical staff at the Beijing You An Hospital rides a bicycle past a sign regarding AIDS October 17, 2008. REUTERS/David Gray

Nafis Sadik, U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region, told a poverty alleviation conference in Beijing that lack of respect for women was helping drive the spread of the virus.

“Gender-based violence and discrimination on grounds of gender drive the HIV and AIDS epidemic among women. Empowerment of women -- equipping them with self-esteem, the knowledge, the ability to protect themselves -- will be of critical importance in winning the battle,” Sadik said.

“Women suffer doubly. First, from HIV and AIDS itself, and secondly from the stigma associated with the disease. Women are routinely blamed for infecting their husbands, though it is almost always the men who infect their wives,” she said.

In Asia, at least 75 million men regularly buy sex from about 10 million female sex workers, she said.

“The results of male behavior can be seen in changing patterns of infection. Today, about one-third of all people living with HIV in China are women, compared with one in 10 in 1995,” Sadik said.

The human immunodeficiency virus infects 33 million people globally, half of them women, and kills 2 million annually.

In August, U.N officials at a major AIDS conference in Mexico warned that rising food prices around the world were likely to drive poor women to trade sex for basic goods like fish and cooking oil, raising the risk of new AIDS infections.

Sadik said that she hoped China’s predominantly male politicians would get more involved in spreading the safe sex message. About 700,000 people live with HIV/AIDS in China and it is now mainly transmitted through sex.

“China must enlist the support of its male leadership and men generally, encouraging them to adopt consistently responsible sexual behavior, and ensuring that they respect their partners, and all women, as equals,” she said.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie and Paul Tait