Culture can contribute to HIV

Date: November 17, 2009
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Women’s biological make-up, gender inequalities preventing negotiating safe sex with the partners, and the unequal burden of care, means that HIV and AIDS increasingly have a woman’s face. One of the drivers of the spread of HIV is the continued practice of cultural traditions that reinforce gender inequalities and make women especially vulnerable to contracting HIV, as well as suffering related stigma.
There have been a number of interventions in both rural and urban areas to obtain qualitative information on the dimensions of HIV/AIDS, identify factors related to vulnerability, and assess socio-cultural factors influencing the spread of the problem. It is now time for future research and health care practices to give more attention to gender-focused cultural research (i.e. women and men’s roles and responsibilities) and how social, economic, and cultural factors affect the spread of AIDS.
There is an urgent need to reorient and allocate resources for health, education, and social services to address the relative disempowerment of women, especially in rural areas. Strengthening policies and programmes to achieve the equal participation of women in all aspects of society’s decisions will go a long way in helping to curb the spread of HIV. This will include strengthening policies related to economic and food security to improve local access by women to all resourcesIn doing so, there is a need to look at the social stereotypes and cultural practices that contribute to gender inequality and HIV/AIDS. In Swaziland, women are still usually regarded as minors in the family. As long as this is so, she will not have a say on anything, including family planning or safe sex.
Then the question comes, “Is this woman my daughter or wife?À If she is a wife then why not give her the respect she deserves at all times, not just when the man decides. There is no consistency in the manner most men treat women. On one hand, women are owners and managers of the family and assets; yet on the other hand, they are minors who cannot say a thing when a man decides on something.
Then there is the issue of polygamy, in which a woman may not have more than one sexual partner, while a man may have many. This traditional marriage places women in a vulnerable position.
A woman in a polygamous relationship is even more likely to accept the rules laid down by her husband on sexual matters, including whether he has additional partners and whether or not he used a condom during sex. Women in polygamous relationships often seek out additional partners themselves for various reasons and this raises the risk of contracting and spreading of HIV within the family.
A man in Swazi culture is celebrated for having many partners À“ even if he is married or involved in a relationship. The society expects men to continue having sexual relations into their old age, when it is traditional that they marry a young woman.
This and other cultural practices À“ such as inheriting a brother’s wife when he dies (ukungena) or having sex with an in-law (kulamuta) À“ have their roots in historical social norms that are no longer relevant. Their continued practice in the context of HIV and AIDS is detrimental to Swazi society.
The question is “should we then continue upholding such practices and continue infecting the society or we do away with the cultural practices that are no longer relevant to modern day life and save the society?À For how long should widows and orphaned children continue loosing their properties through property grabbing by her in-laws/relatives and remain voiceless and vulnerable?
Swaziland is a signatory to a number of regional and international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development   and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to mention but a few. When will we see the full implementation of these and by whom?
Such a questioning of culture is not unique to Swaziland. Across the region, gender activists and HIV campaigners are calling for a continuous review of traditions and norms that are no longer relevant, and may even be harmful. This does not mean throwing away culture, but rather keeping the best parts and adapting those that no longer make sense in our current time and context.
Andrew Moyo produced this article as part of a Gender Links’ media literacy training course in Swaziland. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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