TV & Radio
Asian Housewives Now at High-Risk for HIV/AIDS Infection
KOBE, Japan, Jul 4 (IPS) - Pheng Pharozin, 25, a soft spoken Cambodian woman was happily married with an infant daughter when she tested positive for HIV two years ago.
"I never thought I would be infected because I had sexual relations only with my husband," explained Pharozin at the 7th International Congress of AIDS in Asia and the Pacific that ends Tuesday after five days of deliberations.
Pharozin, a member of the Cambodian People Living with HIV/AIDS Network supported by UNIFEM is in Kobe to tell her story and also call for more support for HIV infected women like herself.
As a member of the Asia Pacific Network (APN), an advocacy group supporting HIV-positive people in the region she is here to lobby for urgently needed protection for Asian women who are now categorized as a high-risk sector despite being housewives or innocent young women married off to men they hardly know.
"I was devastated when I discovered I was infected by my husband who later died of AIDS," said Pharozin who only found solace after she was helped by APN.
The increasing feminization of AIDS in the Asia Pacific region has been highlighted at the regional congress where a new report by UNAIDS revealed that the number of women living with HIV in the region has increased by 20 percent since 2002 to around 2.3 million and that AIDS has claimed some 540,000 lives in 2004.
In Cambodia, for example, the number of HIV positive women have inched over men in recent years- there were 67,500 women compared to 65, 000 men reported in 2004.
While the majority of women infected were sex workers, national statistics also indicated that 45 percent of new HIV infections among women indicate infections were from husbands to wives, this year.
Medical doctors and activists, who included infected women, spoke about the pressing need for more programs geared to help this sector who face severe stigma, social inequality and are economically marginalized.
Said Sneha Samaj, an infected Nepalese woman, "Life for HIV positive women is terribly hard because we face double discrimination - we are women and are also infected. It is only through building our confidence that we can survive."
Samaj was abandoned by her family after she was found HIV positive and sought refuge in a shelter run by nuns till she met Sumi Devkota, from Caram Nepal, a women’s organization supporting HIV positive sex workers.
" Our program is geared to help women realize there is hope and Sneha was the first to speak about being positive. Her courageous step has helped her to get treatment and made her an advocate for other women," explained Devkota.
Experts pointed out the plight of Nepalese sex workers who travel to India and other neighbouring countries and are in need of urgent attention.
Statistics gathered by activists reveal that more than 60 percent of Nepalese sex workers who return from Mumbai are HIV positive and, despite many of them being the main bread winners for their family, have no support and are abandoned by their families when testing positive for HIV.
Experts also spoke out about the need to protect female Asian domestic workers who are also at high risk when they travel to other countries for work.
Surveys show female domestic labour face discrimination in the countries where they are employed, are not protected by laws and have no health insurance, a situation that makes them extremely vulnerable to sexual abuse by their employers.
Statistics also show female domestic labour are lonely being away from home leading to risky sexual activity - only 13 percent of migrant Filipino workers in Hong Kong use condoms.
A presentation by Pravina Gurung, an expert at the Institute of Development Studies based in Nepal, focused on the subject of infection by spouses.
"Women in Asia are cloistered and hardly have any information on HIV and how to protect themselves from infection. They rarely speak to their husbands about using a condom or ask about their sex lives if their husbands are male migrants such as truck drivers," she explained.
Overall experts stressed the need for the empowerment of women as the best protection. To achieve this, they also called for men to be educated which is expecially important in male-dominated Asian societies.
Amudha Hari, an Indian gynaecologist, explained that infection of spouses is a sign of how AIDS has now reached the general population in Asia and indicative of the critical situation facing Asian countries.
"Globalization has changed Asian societies rapidly along with sexual practices among single and working women. More information and open attitudes towards talking about sex and disease is crucial now to contain the HIV problem," she said.