HIV and AIDS | ActionAid UK


Globally, in 2015, there were an estimated 2.3 million adolescent girls and young women (aged 15-24) living with HIV.1

Find out what HIV is and why women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV, learn how ActionAid supports people affected by HIV and AIDS, and hear stories from women and girls we’ve helped.

What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. If untreated, a person’s immune system will eventually completely deteriorate.

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the term used to describe a series of illnesses and infections that people get at the last stage of HIV infection, once the immune system is severely damaged.

HIV symptoms

HIV symptoms vary depending on the stage of the infection. In the first few weeks after infection, most people experience a short, flu-like illness, lasting one to two weeks.

After this, HIV may not cause symptoms for many years, but long term, as the infection progressively weakens the immune system, people can develop other symptoms, such as weight loss, fever, diarrhoea and cough.

Without antiretroviral treatment, people living with HIV can also develop severe illnesses such as tuberculosis, severe bacterial infections and cancers.2

HIV statistics

36.7 million
There were approximately 36.7 million people living with HIV at the end of 2016.3

25.6 million
Africa is the most affected region, with over 25.6 million people living with HIV in 2016.4

58 per cent
58 per cent of new HIV infections among young persons occurred among adolescent girls and young women.5

Women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV

Deep-rooted gender inequality makes women and girls disproportionately vulnerable to being infected with HIV. It also undermines efforts to prevent AIDS.

In sub-Saharan Africa, young women (15-24 years) account for 75 per cent of HIV infections and are approximately three times more likely to be infected than young men of the same age.6

Studies from Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa show up to three fold increases in risk of HIV among women who have experienced violence compared to those who have not.7

Five key links between HIV and violence against women and girls

The WHO identifies five key links between the two, showing how violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence by intimate partners, is both a cause and a consequence of HIV infection.

  1. Inability to negotiate condom use: domestic violence from intimate partners exacerbates unequal power in sexual relationships making it difficult for women and girls to negotiate condom use to protect themselves from HIV infection.
  2. Violence as a consequence of being HIV positive: domestic violence or fear of violence in intimate partner relationships can prevent women seeking HIV testing and revealing their HIV status. This limits their access to vital services such as antiretroviral treatment (ART), prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and psychosocial support.
  3. Relationships with older men: child marriage — the practice of young girls being married to much older men — increases the risk of infection, because older men have a higher prevalence of HIV. The age gap also amplifies the unequal power dynamic, increasing the likelihood of numbers one and two.
  4. Direct transmission through sexual violence: the greater the trauma, vaginal lacerations, and abrasions, caused by the level of force used by the perpetrator, the greater the risk of HIV transmission.
  5. Sexual risk taking: studies show that women’s experience of violence is linked to them having multiple partners, partnerships outside marriage and engaging in transactional sex, all of which increase the risk of getting HIV.

HIV and child-headed households

High prevalence of HIV/AIDS causes a huge increase in child-headed households — houses where a child under 18, usually the eldest, has become the head of the household. This is mostly because both parents have died, often due to conflict or disease.

The eldest children often have to drop out of school and find a way to earn money. This makes young girls even more vulnerable to sexual violence.

In Kenya, Homa Bay County has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the country, with an HIV prevalence rate of over 25%.

In some areas of Nyarongi, where ActionAid works, whole generations have been wiped out by HIV/AIDS, leaving young girls heading up families with no means to support them.

The local sugar factory attracts thousands of male workers from across the country. Girls, many of whom are child heads of households, are lured into sex by older boys and men in exchange for items like school uniforms, sanitary towels, food, or the promise of ‘a better life’.

This puts girls at risk of HIV infection, showing again how violence against women and girls is both a cause and a consequence of HIV.

How ActionAid protects women and girls from the impacts of HIV

Through supporting local women’s groups ActionAid provides vital information, including how to prevent infection, how to get tested, how to get treatment and how to prevent mother-to-baby transmission.

We provide psychosocial support to help women cope with the stigma of living with HIV, and help change negative attitudes in communities.

Through our skills training and group projects we empower women to earn their own income, helping them afford antiretroviral treatment, and support their children.

All of our work to end violence against women and girls – such as helping stop child marriage and ensuring perpetrators are held to account – also helps reduce the risk of women and girls being infected.

You may also be interested in…

Donate to our Not This Girl appeal to keep girls safe from sexual abuse.

Learn more about our work to end child marriage.

Read our latest blogs on women's and girls' rights around the world.


Page updated 3 August 2018