On March 3–4, 2008 a groundbreaking conference was held in Pakistan to discuss HIV/AIDS issues among women in the country. The event, Women-Focused Capacity Building on Advocacy and Awareness Raising about HIV/AIDS and Gender, was organized by the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), in conjunction with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Among other topics, the conference focused on women’s increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, women’s access to HIV/AIDS education, and women’s ability to negotiate safer sex practices.
Discussion of sexual and reproductive health and rights issues is on the rise in Pakistan, as evidenced by the organizing of conferences like this one. Still, there are advances to be made. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, are an increasing problem in part because sexual health information is lacking among adults. Because Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous country and has an annual population growth rate of 2.1 percent, much of the sexual health education in schools and other institutions focus on population issues such as fertility-rate reduction.1 Education on preventing STDs, including HIV, remains lacking.
HIV, once stigmatized in Pakistan as only contracted through homosexual sex, is increasingly becoming a problem for women, including married women. Now most HIV-positive women are becoming infected through heterosexual sex.2 Women are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS for a number of social as well as biological reasons. For example, women in Pakistan are often not in a position to easily negotiate the use of contraceptives that would HIV and other STDs, they have limited access to health centers, and often live in poor economic conditions.
Pakistan’s National AIDS Control Program (NACP) estimates HIV/AIDS cases among women in Pakistan at 15,000 of about 80,000 total cases or approaching nearly 20 percent.3 For women involved in commercial sex work, risk of HIV infection is particularly high. While 63% of female sex workers use preventative measures, this still leaves a considerable number of women at risk.
UNFPA Representative France Douney emphasized that poverty and lack of economic opportunities have increased Pakistani women’s vulnerability to the disease, concluding “The information regarding HIV/AIDS should be included into family planning policy, and health workers should be trained to guide others about prevention of sexually transmitted infections.”4
- “Population, Health &Socio-Economic Indicators/Policy Developments,” United Nations Population Fund, accessed 8 April 2008, http://www.unfpa.org/profile/pakistan.cfm?Section=1.
- “Organizations Hold Conference to Discuss HIV/AIDS-Related Issues Among Women in Pakistan,” Medical News Today, 7 March 2008, accessed 2 April 2008 http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/99791.php.
- “Women’s Awareness Vital to Preventing HIV/AIDS,” Daily Times, 4 March 2008, accessed 2 April 2008 http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008%5C03%5C04%5Cstory_4-3-2008_pg11_1.
- “Organizations Hold Conference.”