Young married women in Asia have emerged as a fast-growing new group of AIDS sufferers despite remaining faithful to their husbands.
Infection rates are increasing at alarming rates among the group who were once considered at low-risk of infection but have been passed the disease by promiscuous partners, the United Nations and health workers said on Thursday.
In some Asian cultures including Thailand, extra-marital affairs for men are considered the norm while women lack knowledge of birth control and are unable in male-dominated societies to demand that their partner use a condom.
"Young women in this region are generally ill-equipped to protect themselves from the virus," said Lucita Lazo, the UN Women's Fund (UNIFEM) regional programme director for East and Southeast Asia.
Society at risk
"What used to be a disease that is prevalent among so-called high-risk populations ... is now among the low-risk population, and that means average, ordinary, monogamous relationships," she said during a visit to a women's HIV-AIDS shelter on the outskirts of Bangkok.
"I never really thought
it would happen to me.
I was not promiscuous and I never used drugs. It was my fate"
"It's not just sex workers, it's normal housewives faithful to their husbands who are picking up the epidemic. It's going into the average household."
Lek, a widow at the shelter, said she was pregnant with her second child when a doctor told her she had contracted the virus.
"I was infected by my husband" four years ago, said the 31-year-old, who said she had been aware of her husband's visits to sex workers but was never able to convince him to use a condom when he had sex with her. He died of an AIDS-related illness soon afterwards.
"He felt remorse, but there was nothing to say because we both felt that we were going to die," said Lek, who used a pseudonym when talking with reporters.
"I never really thought it would happen to me," she added. "I was not promiscuous and I never used drugs," she said. "It was my fate."
Last year the UN reported a dramatic difference in the number of men and women living with HIV. Globally, some 7.3 million women aged 15 to 24 were HIV positive, compared with 4.5 million young men, according to its figures.
Some 4.5 million young men and
7.3 million women are infected
In Thailand, the highest estimate for HIV prevalence among men is 1.33%, while for women it is two per cent.
UNIFEM's warning comes ahead of the 15th International AIDS Conference which is expected to draw up to 20,000 delegates, including world leaders, to the Thai capital from 11 to 16 July.
It has announced an expansion of programmes focusing on youth and women.
Lazo said cultures in Asia, where women often hold a lower status in society, had significant hurdles to overcome, particularly the imbalance of power between the genders.
"The culture of patriarchy, the culture of silence, the cultural taboos have to be addressed more systematically now," she said.
Women were expected to be virgins for their partners and not supposed to seek out sex education to prevent infection.
Maytinee Bhongsvej, executive director of the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women (APSW) which runs the women's shelter, said the government needed to take a new approach to fight the disease.
"Unless linkages between HIV and gender relations are better recognised, I think it will be difficult to make progress," she said.