Sub-Saharan African Women Have A Higher HIV Rate


Featured Image via Flickr/Borja Santos

According to the statistics provided by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 36.7 million people are living with HIV in 2016. Of those people, approximately 17.8 million were women 15 years and older. Within that population, approximately 80 percent are women who live in sub-Saharan Africa. The global HIV rates for women and men are relatively equal with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is the only region were this disparity exists. It has been discovered that the HIV rates of women in Africa is substantially higher than the men.


Siwan Anderson, an economist and author of Legal Origins and Female HIV (a study on female HIV rates in Africa), provides more in depth information and explanations as to the reason for the higher HIV rates in African women. According to Anderson, sub-Saharan African women, on average, are three times more likely than men to have HIV.  Her argument is built on the premise that the history of a legal system built on colonialism has greatly impacted HIV rates. To read more click here.


More specifically, Anderson’s hypothesis attributes this disparity to “weaker marital property rights, [in common law countries], which made women less able to negotiate safe sex with their husbands.” This led her to conclude that HIV rates for women are much higher in countries that adhere to common law rather than civil law. Common law is the legal system of the United Kingdom and its former colonies. While, civil law is the legal system of continental Europe i.e.. France, Italy, Belgium, etc. Sub-Saharan African countries adhere to a common law, unlike the European countries that colonized them.


In the 1960s, many African nations were gaining independence, which means their legal systems were not subject to change. “The discussions and changes occurring in their former colonists with regards to family law were not paralleled on the African continent. The traditionally advantageous treatment of women under civil versus common law regarding marital property has since been largely eroded in Western industrialized countries. This is decidedly not the case in Africa. There, women have unambiguously weaker marital property rights in common law countries,” Anderson wrote in her report.  So, it all came down to female bargaining power.


Women in common law nations i.e. African nations do not have less of the ability to negotiate sex with their partners, even if their partners are infected by HIV. This is also an indication of women being less able to to refuse sex. In this case, sub-Saharan African women have way less bargaining power than the civil law nations. It is far less devastating in civil law nations when refusing sex and/ or threatening for divorce. In other words, Sub-Saharan African women’s lack of access to property rights has led to lower female bargaining power in this region. Whereas, women in the civil law nations access to property rights empowered women to negotiate and thus giving them higher bargaining power.