HIV/AIDS: a rural issue

Of the 36,1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, an overwhelming 95 percent live in developing countries. And within those countries, AIDS is becoming a greater threat in rural areas than in cities. In absolute numbers, more people living with HIV reside in rural areas. The epidemic is spreading with alarming speed into the remotest villages, cutting food production and threatening the very life of rural communities.

  • Africa accounts for only one tenth of the world's population but nine out of ten new cases of HIV infection. Eighty three percent of all AIDS deaths are in Africa, where the disease has killed ten times more people than war.
  • In nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 10 percent of the adult population is HIV positive. In Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, 20 to 26 percent of the population aged 15-49 is living with HIV or AIDS (Click here to view map).

But other parts of the world are also hard hit. In India around four million people are infected with HIV. The incidence of the disease is high in several Caribbean countries, although the spread of the epidemic in Latin America has been slower than in other regions and the epidemic is concentrated in urban areas.

A threat to agriculture and household food security
AIDS undermines agricultural systems and affects the nutritional situation and food security of rural families. As adults fall ill and die, families face declining productivity as well as loss of knowledge about indigenous farming methods and loss of assets.

FAO has estimated that in the 25 most-affected African countries, AIDS has killed seven million agricultural workers since 1985. It could kill 16 million more within the next 20 years (Click here for more facts and figures)


Click here for enlarged poster
In addition, rural communities bear a higher burden of the cost of HIV/AIDS as many urban dwellers and migrant labourers return to their village of origin when they fall ill. At the same time, household expenditures rise to meet medical bills and funeral expenses, and while the number of productive family members decline, the number of dependents grow. These realities endanger both short-term and long-term household food security.

A threat to women and girls
Biological and social factors make women and girls more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than men and boys. Studies have shown that HIV infection rates in young women can be 3-5 times higher than among young men. Also, some of the traditional mechanisms to ensure women's access to land in case of widowhood contribute to the spread of AIDS -- such as the custom that obliges a man to marry his brother's widow. Studies have shown that a widow who loses access to her husband's property can be forced into commercial sex as her only means of subsistence.

Women and girls also face the greatest burden of work -- given their traditional responsibilities for growing much of the food and caring for the sick and dying. In many hard-hit communities, girls are being withdrawn from school to help lighten the family load.

The impact of AIDS on farming communities differs from village to village and country to country. But it is clear that the epidemic is undermining the progress made in the last 40 years of agricultural and rural development. This poses enormous challenges to governments, non-governmental organizations and the international community. The disease is no longer just a health problem -- it has become a major development issue. (For more about FAO and AIDS, click here)

Interview with Marcela Villarreal, FAO's focal point for HIV/AIDS (3 min 10 sec). Mp3 (1475Kb), Realaudio (390Kb)

HIV/AIDS and agriculture: an FAO perspective
HIV/AIDS and Food Security Web site
FAO and the Socio-Economic Impact of HIV/AIDS on Agriculture
For more information contact Marcela Villarreal, FAO's focal point for HIV/AIDS ([email protected])
Focus Archive

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