, , , , , ,

Saturday, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day.

What does that have to do with child marriage? Quite a bit, unfortunately.

According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), girls and women are the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and child brides—for a number of reasons—have a far greater risk of contracting the disease.

Research provided by UNAIDS indicates that not only are women biologically more susceptible to HIV infection than men, but younger women and girls are especially vulnerable because their genital tracts are not yet fully developed.

In developing countries, women are more likely than men to be infected with HIV, with young women outnumbering young men among newly infected 15- to 24-year-olds by two to one, according to a report by the UNAIDS Inter-Agency Task Team on Gender and HIV/AIDS.

Furthermore, sex between child brides—many of whom are prepubescent—and their older husbands is often violent. According to UNAIDS, violent sex increases HIV transmission because vaginal abrasions make it easier for the virus to enter the body.

In addition, since older men tend to be more sexually experienced than young men, young girls are much more prone to HIV infection when marrying a much older man. Marriage to a much older husband also places a girl at higher risk of infection than her unmarried peers.

The imbalance of power in a relationship like that also increases the chance that the bride will lack the authority to refuse sex or to insist on safer sex—all of which exposes her to the potential for infection. She may not even realize she’s in danger if she doesn’t have access to information about reproductive rights and sexually transmitted diseases, which is often the case in developing countries.

Agere, 32, breastfeeds her twin newborns in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia on May 24, 2007. Agere was married at age 12 to her husband who gave her AIDS. The twins have tested HIV positive, and since her husband left, she does not have the money to buy them uninfected milk. Photo © 2012 Stephanie Sinclair.

Clearly, reducing the rate of child marriage would also slow the spread of HIV/AIDS. In October, the UNFPA announced it would commit an additional $20 million over the next five years to combat child marriage in 12 countries where the practice remains common, including Guatemala, India, Niger and Zambia.

The money will sponsor programs aimed largely at girls between the ages of 10 and 18. In addition to encouraging them to stay in school and teaching them financial literacy and life skills, the programs will educate the girls about safe-sex options and their right to live free of violence and coercion.

Separately, the UNFPA sponsors a number of family-planning programs aimed at supporting those living with HIV/AIDS and stopping the spread of the disease among young people and between mothers and their children.

Tomorrow, the world unites to fight the spread of a deadly disease, honor those living with it, remember those we’ve lost and celebrate the progress we’ve made against it. We stand with that effort, knowing that ending child marriage is but one of the ways we can help eradicate HIV/AIDS.