Asia AIDS Conference Spotlights Women, Girls

Taking the fight against AIDS (search) to those most vulnerable, government officials and aid workers from the Asia-Pacific region on Monday opened a three-day conference aimed at helping women and girls avoid the deadly disease.

Over the last two years, the steepest increases in the number of women living with HIV (search), the virus that causes AIDS, have been in East Asia — up 56 percent — and Central Asia and Eastern Europe, both up 48 percent, according to a U.N. report issued at the conference.

"The Asia-Pacific region is of great concern because, while some nations have comparatively low rates of HIV prevalence, there is great potential for an explosion of HIV on the lines of the African pandemic," a conference statement said.

Part of the reason is that experts say women are 2.5 times more susceptible to contracting AIDS than men due to a variety of factors. Social and religious stigmas also contribute heavily to the problem in a region where even discussing sex in any way is often taboo.

A common thread at the conference is empowering women, including sex workers and the victims of human trafficking (search), by overcoming gender inequalities.

"It is painful reality that women in this region are generally more illiterate, having less mobility, a lower socio-economic status and less access to health care and education that men," Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Ariz told the conference. "This imbalance needs to be viewed as a key impediment not only to the prevention of AIDS, but also to development and good governance."

Dr. Peter Piot, UNAIDS (search) executive director, added that it's time to shift from "quick fixes" to long-term strategies.

"We have to balance the emergency nature of the crisis with the need for sustainable solutions," he said. "Concrete action is necessary to prevent violence against women, and ensure access to property and inheritance rights, basic education and employment opportunities for women and girls."

Because of their traditional roles as caregivers and educators for their families and communities, experts say women also have great potential as "soldiers" in the campaign against HIV/AIDS.

"The empowerment of women is the best vaccine we now have against AIDS," said UNIFEM Director Noeleen Heyder.

From street children to sex workers, the challenges are as wide and varied as the region itself.

While some countries have made strides in fighting AIDS — a program to convince Thailand's sex workers to force customers to use condoms has earned praise — officials say other places are disasters waiting to happen.

Some countries are so conservative that public awareness campaigns have been slow to catch on. Condom use is patchy, partly due to a lack of education, and partly to resistance in male-dominated cultures. The Roman Catholic church's policy against artificial birth control is another hurdle.

The stigmas extend to the pariah status that infection with the AIDS-causing virus HIV brings instantly in many cultures. That often leads to underreporting of the disease's spread.

For instance, Pakistan officially has 2,748 cases of people who have tested HIV-positive. But international agencies say the real number could be as high as 70,000.

In an effort to seek innovative solutions, dozens of papers have been submitted to the conference on topics ranging from a unique AIDS prevention program for street children in India to an effort to start AIDS education at a madrassa, or Islamic school, in east Africa. Others deal with orphans left behind by the deaths of parents from AIDS.