Women and AIDS in south and South-East Asia: the challenge and the response

World Health Stat Q. 1996;49(2):94-105.


South and South-East Asia are at the centre of the most aggressive advances of the AIDS epidemic today. The challenge this presents to the region is clear. While reported absolute numbers still lag behind the African region (11,160,900 in Africa; 3,081,235 in Asia) knowledgeable observers agree that the place of infection and potential devastation in this region exceed what we have seen in Africa. Those concerned with the welfare of the people of Asia, therefore, must make serious efforts to break the chain of HIV transmission as quickly and effectively as possible and identify and care for the infected. Women are entitled to protection by rights the same as men. However, for anatomical reasons, women are more vulnerable than men to infection by HIV. In addition, throughout the Asian region, women's "natural" vulnerability is vastly magnified by poverty and generally low levels of education and personal autonomy which make it difficult for them to gain access to information and appropriate services. Because of women's multiple roles in the epidemic-potential "infectee", care-giver, transmitter of infection-if we are to be successful in halting the spread of HIV/AIDS we must give particular attention to reaching, working with, and serving women. Meeting this challenge requires involvement of men as well as women, individuals and institutions, governments and NGOs, in four broad areas of activity: (i) HIV/AIDS education and information; (ii) basic education and economic activity to reduce gender inequities; (iii) improvements in policy and social environments; and (iv) provision of health and other services. Lack of commitment, skill, or persistence in meeting the challenge will cost lives across Asia.

PIP: This article examines the impact of HIV/AIDS on women in southern and southeastern Asia. The introductory section considers that HIV/AIDS is a special concern for women due to: 1) the social, cultural, and economic factors that limit women's access to health information and services; 2) women's potential to transmit HIV to infants and their role as primary health care providers to those with HIV/AIDS; 3) women's crucial role in the economies of the region; and 4) the fact that HIV/AIDS compromises quality of life. The next section describes the extent of the challenge in the region and provides tabulated data on basic demographics of 17 Asian countries, on the global epidemic of HIV/AIDS in southern and southeastern ASIA, and on basic information about women in the region. The persistence of women's inferior status is then linked to poor access to information, particularly about health and sexual matters. Specific actions are then proposed that should be guided by: 1) the involvement of the women concerned; 2) a broad socioeconomic, legal, and cultural consideration of HIV/AIDS; 3) the active participation of women and men; and 4) the integration of technical and social concerns. The specific activities include: 1) providing education and information on sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, 2) reducing gender inequities through provision of basic education and economic activity, 3) changes in policy and social environments (for example, the legal status of commercial sex, reaching the unmarried, and family and religion), and 4) provision of gender-sensitive health and other services including blood testing, counseling, condom promotion, and research. The importance of partnerships and networking is emphasized, and it is concluded that women already infected must be given the right to remain a productive part of their family and community while efforts are made to reduce the vulnerability of the as-yet-uninfected women.

MeSH terms

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / epidemiology*
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / prevention & control
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / transmission
  • Asia / epidemiology
  • Cultural Characteristics
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Female
  • Health Education
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Socioeconomic Factors