HIV/AIDS Backgrounder: Women

Key Messages:

HIV infection rates have been rising among women in Toronto. Women accounted for 18% of positive HIV test reports in Toronto in 2009 . To put these figures into context, women have historically accounted for 14% of positive test reports in Ontario (1985 – 2004). Within that group, women from countries with high rates of HIV infection accounted for the largest group of positive test reports.

Social and economic inequality increases women’s vulnerability to HIV transmission. Unequal gender roles and social and economic dependence on male partners can reduce women’s ability to negotiate safer sex or seek out sexual health information and support. This, coupled with the fact that women are biologically about twice as likely as men to contract HIV from unprotected heterosexual intercourse with an infected partner, puts them at increased risk.

Discrimination is a barrier to HIV prevention and treatment. For women who are newcomers to Canada, discrimination and language barriers can have an isolating effect. If they are living with HIV, they may also face discrimination from within their communities, where being HIV-positive can carry stigma. Discrimination discourages women from talking about their HIV-status, or about the conditions that put them at risk for HIV. It discourages them from getting tested for HIV and seeking treatment for HIV infection. This, in turn, decreases their quality of life and increases HIV infection rates.

Tailored community education and capacity-building programs are the most effective tools we have to reduce HIV infection among women and support women who are living with HIV/AIDS. As HIV evolves to affect different groups within Toronto, Ontario, and Canada, HIV/AIDS education and community-building efforts must evolve to meet the needs of women within these groups. In practice, this means large- and small-scale collaborations between AIDS service organizations and women-serving organizations, as well as the media, community groups, and government. To that end, ACT is involved with the provincially-funded Women and HIV/AIDS Initiative which seeks to reduce HIV transmission among women, support women living with HIV, and enhance local community capacity to address HIV-related issues.