Anyone can get HIV, but some people are more vulnerable because they do not have the power to negotiate the terms of sex or because of their risky sex lives.
The groups who are most vulnerable and have the highest infection rates are:
- Young women between 15 and 30 years old – some of the women in this age group are in unequal relationships where they cannot refuse unsafe sex or are exposed to sexual violence
- Sexually active men and women who have more than one partner. Although polygamy (having more than one wife) is a custom followed only by some men, many others have a wife and a girlfriend, or casual sexual partners. They may get the virus from a casual partner and pass it on to their wife.
- Migrant and mine workers who are separated from their families for most of the year and many of them have multiple partners
- Transport workers who travel a lot and have multiple partners, and many of them use the services of sex workers
- Sex workers who are exposed to many partners and are sometimes powerless to insist on safe sex
- Drug users who share needles – one person who is HIV-positive can infect a group of people who share the same needle, unless it is sterilised in between usage. Many drug addicts also become sex workers to pay for their drugs.
- People who practice anal sex – the anus can easily be injured during sex because it has no natural lubrication (wetness), and the virus can be passed on unless a condom is used. Women who have anal sex, gay men and other men who have sex with men (for example prisoners), are vulnerable to this form of transmission.
Young women are the most vulnerable because they are often powerless to say no to unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner. They have the highest infection rate of all in South Africa. They are also the most common victims of rape and sexual abuse. Young girls who are virgins are also at risk because of the myth that a person can be cured of HIV or AIDS by having sex with a virgin. This is completely untrue.
Women are more vulnerable to HIV infection than men. A woman’s vagina has a larger surface area for HIV to enter. Some sexual practices are dangerous for women as they can increase the risk of getting HIV e.g. dry sex, which can lead to vaginal tearing and can make it easier for the virus to enter the body. Rape, especially if it is violent, can also increase the risk of getting HIV, as the victim cannot make her rapist wear a condom.
Men and women who have other sexually transmitted diseases (such as syphilis or gonorrhoea) are also more vulnerable because they often have open sores on their private parts.