HIV/AIDS is profoundly concentrated in areas of extreme poverty like sub Saharan Africa. In order to help combat the spread of HIV it is important to understand how poverty and HIV are linked. While well-known factors like lack of education and stigma contributing to the epidemic, sexual risk is also an important factor to consider. Noel Dzimnenani Mbirimtengerenji studies poverty and HIV/AIDS in sub Saharan Africa, and found that sexual trade was an important predictor of HIV contraction in the area.

The situation is particularly bad for women. When women and their families are living in extreme poverty and suffering from food insecurity women may engage in risky coping mechanisms in order to feed themselves and their children. These coping mechanisms include informal sexual transactions and formal sex work. Sexual transactions occur when sex is within the confines of a marriage or a relationship. Women may trade sex for food and shelter or stay in violent relationship in order to maintain economic stability. It can also mean formal sex work, also known as prostitution. Most sex workers in Africa work individually rather than for a “pimp”. They often rent a room and receive immediate payment. Both of these situations put women at increased risk for contracting HIV.

Dzimnenani Mbirimtengerenji remarks “Poverty does seem to be the crucial factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS through sexual trade. The extreme poverty compels most of the young women to indulge into risky behavior that can easily bring money and resources for survival”.

The cultural subordination of women in Sub Saharan Africa means that women often do not have the power to demand condom use when they are having sex with men. Women are more concerned with the immediate survival of their families than they are with the possible threat of infection. Men are often also willing to pay more money if he doesn’t have to use a condom.

Most HIV prevention efforts are concentrated on providing women sexual education and access to health care services. However if women are not using condoms due to cultural and economic gender inequalities, education about condom use will fail to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.  Information and healthcare needs to be combined with initiatives that promote gender equity and women’s empowerment. Condition cash transfer programs, microcredit, and career training can empower women and give them more resources. Giving girls a formal education will also help prevent them from contracting HIV/AIDS as they understand how the infection is transmitted and have more power in their relationships.

– Lisa Toole