HIV/AIDS and Women: An African Perspective
AIDS is a devastating problem in Nigeria. Every day the disease touches the lives of 7,000 more women and girls in a country with the world’s highest number of AIDS orphans.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with a vast geographical area, multiple
cultural and social groups and urban migration patterns that leave young girls and boys
without adequate supervision (1). Nigeria has the world’s highest number of AIDS orphans
and currently at least 270,000 Nigerian children are infected with HIV (2).
Women Are More at Risk
In Nigeria, the HIV/AIDS pandemic ravaging the nation has come to be gender-specific,
making women more vulnerable than men. 7,000 women or girls are affected daily, with
women constituting over 50% of HIV-positive individuals in sub-Saharan Africa. About
90% of new HIV infections occur in the developing world, and are most associated with
Why Are Women More Vulnerable?
Only a negligible number of women have access to HIV prevention. Culture, religion,
socio-cultural and economic influences place women in a disadvantaged position.
Educational shortcomings�low-level literacy and ineffective, inappropriate vocational
training–disproportionately affect women and girls. Other factors include the fact that
women do not have a voice or equal rights in matters directly affecting their lives, such as
negotiating condom use and determining the type or extent of sexual relations. Rape is so
stigmatized that women often dare not speak out. They cannot question their roles as
subordinate wives in polygamous marriages, which are quite acceptable in Nigeria–even
when a new wife infected with HIV joins the household! Nor, in some localities in Nigeria,
can they question underage marriages forced upon them. Women are kept down, and
therefore they are kept vulnerable, not least to HIV. They are deprived of access to
information and wealth-creating assets. Restrictions are placed on their education and the
professions they are allowed to enter, so they are prevented from competing for lucrative
and more fulfilling jobs (1).
Inheritance laws and cultural norms of inheritance that discriminate against women remain
unaddressed (3). Widows and girls are often disenfranchised from their late husbands’ and
fathers’ property. The resulting poverty can sometimes leave them no choice but
prostitution, and they become highly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. When a mother is sick with
AIDS or dies from the disease, her daughters take on the burden pf household tasks, so
many more female children are forced to drop out of school (4). Dropping out of school
leads to poverty and poverty leads to HIV. When both parents die of HIV orphans become
child laborers and can look forward to nothing but poverty, with girls suffering even more
than boys. Poverty wears a female face, and the tripartite relationship, poverty-child
labor-HIV/AIDS is real.
Recommendations and Remedies
Governance in Nigeria is dominated by men both at the political level and in traditional
institutions while women carry the burden of care. It is essential therefore to integrate
gender issues into the National Empowerment and Economic Development Strategy
(NEEDS) process and the State Empowerment and Economic Development Strategy
(SEEDS) and also monitor the implementation of proposed gender-related actions. This
should improve the unequal status in literacy, income and education between the genders.
Preferential empowerment of girls and women will provide alternative options for
employment and provide informal schools for girls so that they will have vocational choices
other than sex worker, hawker or household helper.
Fathers should be more proactive about the welfare of their female children. Men must
exercise more sexual self-control than is traditionally expected in Nigeria. Role models in
urban areas and rural communities should be enlisted to encourage responsible sexual
behavior in teenagers. A proper, organized public transport system would also reduce the
risk of rape, thereby reducing HIV risk among lower socio-economic groups (5).
Rape victims who traditionally could not even show their faces in public, much less speak
out, should be given an audience. They must have justice and compensation, with
adequate punishment meted out to offenders if we are to change the current situation in
which girls are stigmatized and forced to remain silent in the face of harassment, hurt and
possible HIV infection.
In conclusion, although both men and women are of course vulnerable to AIDS/HIV
women are more at risk due to cultural and economic factors. Advocating abstinence,
insisting on the use of condoms and taking advantage of all available new prevention
technologies such as microbicides if and when they become available in Nigeria, will help
protect women from HIV. Responsible individuals should volunteer as role models and
dedicate time and resources to educating young men and women about taking
responsibility for themselves. On bright spot has been the Nigerian government’s efforts in
implementing provision of free retroviral drugs to all HIV-infected citizens.
In high-income countries, mother-to-child transmission of HIV and infections in infants is
now rare. The reverse is true in developing countries like Nigeria. A high-level global
forum which took place in Abuja, Nigeria in December 2005, the Prevention of Mother to
Child Transmission (PMTCT,) is taking steps to establish a comprehensive program of
mother-to-child transmission strategies to prevent HIV transmission to women; to provide
reproductive healthcare to women living with HIV; to prevent HIV transmission during
pregnancy, labor and delivery; to minimize HIV transmission through safer infant feeding
practices; and to provide care, support and treatment services to women, infants and their
families. Such initiatives are heartening. As well, at the UN General Assembly World
Summit on HIV in September 2005 the G-8 nations and UN member states made a
commitment to scale up comprehensive, national AIDS response programs, which should
yield dividends by the year 2015 for Nigeria and the developing world in general (6).
1. Nigeria Strategic Country Gender Assessment Report. A World Bank Document 2004.
2. Nigeria AIDS Outlook (2005) An update from the AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria.
3. Gender & HIV/AIDS in Africa by Falusi A.G. 14th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa ICASA Dec. 2005.
4. Combating Child Labour and HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa by Bill Rau for International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (Geneva ILO-IPEC 2002)
5. Gender, Culture and Religion in HIV New Technology by A.G. Falusi. Workshop on Ethical Issues in New HIV Prevention Technologies Research for IRB Chairs. 2005, Abuja, Nigeria.
6.Call to Action: Elimination of HIV infection in infants and children. Dec 3, 2005.