HIV infection rates among Asian women are soaring and being married is one of the biggest factors as many women contract the disease from their husbands, the UN said yesterday.
UNAIDS deputy executive director Kathleen Cravero said women's infection rates in the region had jumped 10 percent in the past two years and would likely soon match that of men if governments failed to take action.
"Women make up 30 percent of adult infections in Southeast Asia and in some countries this is fast moving towards 50 percent," Cravero at an event held to mark International Women's Day.
"In Papua New Guinea more than half of all new infections are among women," she added.
Cravero said marriage had proven to be a high risk factor for women throughout Asia, with many husbands having several extra-marital partners and their wives powerless to object.
"In Thailand a full 40 percent of new infections occurs between spouses, with 90 percent of them from husband to wife, and we have seen a similar trend in other countries such as India," she said.
"One of the biggest factors for this in Asia is the culture of silence, in which women cannot ask about sex or the sexual behaviour of their partners."
Malinee Sukavejworakit, an advisor to the Thai Senate Committee on Public Health, said Thailand had made great strides in AIDS awareness but that cultural issues were an obstacle to educating women about the disease.
"We try to put condom machines in universities and public places but Asian culture is different, it is very difficult to persuade people to accept that condoms must be accessible, but this needs to be done," she said.
"Girls at school and the wife at home, who were once the lowest risk group, are now high risk because of the behaviour of their husbands and boyfriends," she told reporters.
In a statement released to mark International Women's Day UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said HIV-AIDS was taking a devastating toll on women throughout the world.
"In the world as a whole, at least half of those newly infected are women, and among people younger than 24, girls and young women now make up nearly two thirds of those living with HIV," he said. "If these rates of infection continue, women will soon become the majority of the global total of people infected."