Vidyya Medical News Service
Volume 6 Issue 206 Published - 14:00 UTC 08:00 EST 24-Jul-2004 Next Update - 14:00 UTC 08:00 EST 25-Jul-2004
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HIV rampant among Lesotho's women

Unemployment, low wages and sexual discrimination in the tiny kingdom of Lesotho have fueled an HIV infection rate of 50 percent among young women, the New York Times reported yesterday.

Half of women aged 15 to 24 are infected with the virus, compared to 25 percent of men in the same age group.  Overall, Lesotho's HIV prevalence among adults is 28 percent, higher than that of South Africa, which entirely surrounds it.

According to the Times, the reason is mainly economic.  Unemployment is over 50 percent, and jobs in the garment industry, Lesotho's economic lifeline, pay an average of 70 cents an hour to the 55,000 people lucky enough to get them.  About 45,000 of those are women, many of whom were sent to the capital Maseru from the countryside by families who expect to receive money from their daughters.

Combined with a traditional form of paternalism that renders all married women legally minors and dependent on men to open bank accounts or own property, the situation has forced young women into what experts call "transactional sex."

"One woman will go out with four or five men," 26-year-old seamstress Bolelwa Falten explained.  "One will help with the rent.  One, maybe, will drive a taxi and take her to and from work.  One will help with food.  One will help her pay her installments."

The situation in Lesotho mirrors that of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, where a new report shows that women now account for 57 percent of HIV sufferers.  Experts warn that feminization of the disease could lead to the collapse of African farming, much of which is conducted by women, and a worsening of the AIDS orphan crisis as potential caretakers die off.  This could have dire consequences for Lesotho, where the number of AIDS orphans has risen from 32,000 to 100,000 in two years, according to the Times.

U.N. envoy on AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis last week predicted a southern Africa two decades hence where "you are going to sense and see the loss of women."

"There will be portions of Africa" that "will be depopulated of women," he said (Michael Wines, New York Times, July 20).

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