In 1995, when I visited Johannesburg as a graduate student working on an economic development plan for a developing part of the region, the high rate of HIV infection, and the particular vulnerability of young women, was a significant challenge. It was painfully obvious then, as it is 15 years later that for many women, contracting HIV is as much about socioeconomic and political conditions as it is about medicine and health care.
Worldwide, the rate of infection among women has reached epidemic levels, and for some women, the rate continues to climb.

According to the World Health Organization, 16.4 million women are living with HIV/AIDS around the globe, accounting for 47 percent of the 34.7 million adults living with HIV/AIDS. The disease is the leading cause of death among young African-American women between the ages of 25-34 years old, which is a reality exacerbated by poverty, incarceration, negative health behaviors and lack of adequate education.

As the International AIDS Conference continued in Austria, researchers at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research In South Africa (CAPRISA) announced a significant breakthrough in HIV prevention, through the use of a microbicide in the form of a vaginal gel that can reduce the spread of the virus when used regularly and properly.

However, while the gel is an important pharmaceutical advancement that studies show could protect four out of ten women from contracting HIV, by no means is it the panacea for a complex problem rooted not only in sexual behaviors, but also in social and political structures that fail to protect women, particularly young women, from victimization.

Domestically and abroad, social conditions persist that make women more susceptible than their male counterparts to infectious disease. The power dynamics that relegate women to increased vulnerability still play a role. In South Africa it might look like the young girl who has been raped because it is believed that her purity will “cure” an elder male of infection. In the United States, it may be the sexually exploited minor who was “turned out” at the age of 10, and who will not be seen by a physician until she finally comes into contact with the juvenile justice system. In both of these cases—and others like them—a vaginal gel alone won’t decrease her risk of infection.

The ability to know one’s status and exercise a full empowerment to protect one’s body from victimization is a human rights issue that is persistently violated in many communities around the world. This is one of the reasons the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women remains so important. Economic and political empowerment, as well as education and adequate health care, are still key protective factors and human rights that when observed, will aid in the effort to reduce the physical and mental health disparities that may be associated with or exacerbated by the virus—not just on African soil, but throughout the Diaspora.