News24, 07 November 2002, Young women, girls most vulnerable to HIV/Aids

Cape Town - The vulnerability to HIV and Aids of poor young women and girls came under the spotlight in the National Assembly on Thursday.

The House was debating a report - produced a year ago by the joint monitoring committee on improvement of quality of life and status of women - on how this problem could best be addressed.

Among its findings is that the highest incidence of HIV in South Africa is among young women aged between 20 and 30 years old.

The report also notes that rich, middle-class South Africans who have contracted HIV/Aids are able to have a good quality of life, despite having the disease.

However, "poor people who have HIV/Aids - the majority of whom are African, young and female - have no such option available to them".

"Too often they have limited access to the basics of water, nutrition and good healthcare, including treatment," the report states.

Speaking in the debate, New National Party MP Sheila Camerer said it was clear from the report that young women and girls "bear the brunt of the HIV/Aids scourge".

"In South Africa, in the ten years from 1990 to 2000, HIV prevalence in pregnant women rose from 0.7% to over 23%.

"Young women in the 20 to 30 age group have the highest rates of infection, and women between 15 and 19 have the highest percentage increase in infection - about 68%."

Camerer said the committee had examined why women were the main victims of the Aids pandemic, and had found their vulnerability to Aids stemmed from a range of social, economic, biological, cultural and even legal factors.

"For instance, women trying to get men to abstain, be faithful and condomise often face beating, rejection and even death.

"Scientific studies have established that 39% of South Africa's girl children between the ages of 12 and 17 have been forced to have sex.

"Society's double standards give males the license to be sexually adventurous...research in South Africa (has) found that most women and girls are infected by a male partner to whom they are faithful," she said.

According to a June 2000 UNAIDS report on the global HIV/Aids epidemic, 55% of adults infected with the disease in sub-Saharan Africa are women.

It says that worldwide, women are contracting HIV at a faster rate than men, and the highest number of new cases is among girls aged 15 to 19.