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Myths Increase Women's Vulnerability to AIDS


DURBAN, South Africa (Reuters) - Myths about AIDS common among men in some cultures, such as that sleeping with virgins can cure it, are putting young women and girls at extra risk of catching the deadly disease, activists said Thursday.

The activists, interviewed at the 13th International AIDS Conference, also expressed fears that the practice of virginity testing in some countries could be making the problem worse by identifying virgins for men with AIDS. Unemployment in deprived urban areas also left sexual excess as the only recreation for some young people, further spreading the disease, they added.

Figures presented at the conference show that 1 million children below the age of 15 are already living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and 12 million have been orphaned by the disease.

"I don't think there are concrete enough plans with deadlines and budgets for us to see implementation (of anti-AIDS programs)," said South African AIDS and children's activist Yvonne Spain.

"If we don't act now, in 15 years' time it is too ghastly to contemplate."

As the coordinator of CINDI, a national South African network for children affected by AIDS, Spain knows the impact of the disease on young people, particularly in rural areas where silence, myths, stigma and ignorance surround AIDS.

Aids A Taboo Subject

People in these areas still find it difficult to talk about AIDS and refer to the disease by euphemisms, activists say.

A survey of 260 African truck drivers, of whom 95 percent were sexually active, showed that 35 percent believed sleeping with a virgin could cure AIDS.

"The fact that there is an idea that you can have sex with a virgin and be cured is a real problem that has to be acted on," said Tessa Marcus, a professor of sociology at the University of Natal in South Africa.

Marcus and Spain are also concerned about virgin testing, a practice in which young girls are examined by their mothers or village matriarchs to make sure they are chaste.

They said the practice could endanger the lives of girls.

"To declare yourself a virgin is like putting a flag up and saying 'come to get me'," Marcus said.

Many young girls also mistakenly believe that if a man looks healthy he cannot be infected with HIV and they are unaware of how to protect themselves from infection, she said.

Governments Reluctant To Act

Spain said politicians and officials had failed to address the problem of AIDS because it was not a vote-winner and touched on the major taboos of sexuality and death.

"And then you have a dispossessed youth with no jobs and no money for recreation and so sexual excess becomes pure recreation.

"I was readying a survey done with youths in (the South African township of) Soweto where jackrollering (gang rape) was seen as sport."

Young women who were interviewed thought it was all right to have non-consensual sex, that it was part of life, she added.

"It is happening," Marcus said, "and every incident is one too many."


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Information in this article was accurate in July 13, 2000. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.