AIDS in Africa: How Gender Issues Are the Lubricant for the Pandemic

November 17, 2008


            AIDS is a global phenomenon, most tangible in sub-Saharan Africa.  In order to prevent further HIV transmission, one has to identify and address the metaphorical lubricant that enables the HIV virus to continue to breed among African peoples.  Studies have proven public health and safe sex campaigns are impotent; they have failed to significantly encourage sexual behavioral change on this continent.  Political leaders, such as South African President Thabo Mbeki, have stated, “Poverty causes AIDS.”  Medical researchers and international development workers have blamed poor education, poor quality primary healthcare, poor public infrastructures, and socio-economic factors as the common denominator in the escalating transmission of HIV throughout Africa.  This is all true; however, my personal conclusions, in the field, lead me to believe that it is the historic discrimination of women, in traditional societies, that most enables the spread of AIDS in Africa.


            Gender issues address men’s issues as equally as women’s issues.  In traditional African societies, men have strictly defined roles as “warrior”, “bread-winner”, and “leader”.  If African men fail to fill these roles, they are persecuted and ostracized from their community.  Most African men are taught that it is unacceptable to cry, or show any sign of weakness; the result is physical punishment or ridicule by peers and elders.  Traditional African men are trained how to fight and are expected to violently defend or protect their honor, their family, their property, their traditions/customs/belief systems, and their people. 


Most African men evaluate their sexual prowess and economic worth by the number of lovers they have, and later, by the number of wives they keep.  Most traditional African societies require the men pay a “bride price” for a wife, called “lobola”; usually cattle serves as commerce.  Arranged marriages are still common and the wife is popularly viewed as “property” of the husband once the bride price has been paid in full.  African men are raised to believe that their self-worth is based on their ability to be an efficient “bread-winner”, to breed healthy children, and to achieve leadership positions in the community.  The possibility that women could be “warriors”, “bread-winners”, or “leaders” in traditional African societies is joke material.


Because African men fear to re-define their own roles, women have been historically oppressed in these traditional societies.  Women are viewed as property of their fathers, until a marriage is arranged, with or without the daughter’s consent, and a bride price is paid.  Often due to stressful economic factors, a poor father will “exchange” his adolescent daughter, for much needed cattle/income, to a random suitor prepared to pay the “lobola.”  Women have no say in household economics or community politics.  Note that the women are taught that they have no say in household economics or community politics. 


A woman who challenges her husband in any way is “asking for a beating”.  Domestic abuse incidences often go unreported to local law enforcement officials, which are local men (in “warrior” role), who commonly view domestic violence as a valid tool for disciplining “unruly” wives or children.  However, local public health clinics and hospitals have clear documentation of the alarming incidences of domestic abuse in African households. African women fear to report domestic abuse cases because it will “humiliate” the husband in the eyes of the community, ignite further abuse on the home-front, or women may be “thrown out” of their homes.  The dismissal of domestic abuse charges is also reflected in the high incidence of unreported rape cases.  Most rapes, in traditional African societies, are committed by male lovers, husbands, and male family members (“the uncle”.)  An African male will state that a husband “cannot rape his wife.” 


In light of the praised promiscuity and traditional polygamy of African societies, this means African men have multiple sexual partners, as early as age 12.  Adultery, committed by a married African male, is generally accepted as “natural” or “normal”; it is totally unacceptable for a wife to commit adultery (in some African cultures, punishable by death.)  Therefore, simple mathematics prove that the more sexual partners one has will increase the likelihood of a person being exposed to HIV.  Even if a wife accepts her husband’s or lover’s external sexual appetite, is aware of the HIV transmission risks, asks her husband or lover to wear a condom, ultimately, the African male has the final word in bedroom politics.  If the woman has no say in the use of condoms, external sexual practices of her partner, and her “No!”, or demand to use a condom, are met with violent resistance or verbal abuse, she is unlikely to be able to protect herself and her future children from being exposed to HIV.


Therefore, in conclusion, it is clear to me that until women, in traditional African societies, are respected in the bedroom, in the household, and in their communities, and African men learn to protect themselves from HIV transmission, all the safe sex and AIDS awareness campaigns will remain powerless to encourage sexual behavioral change.  Instead of condom posters and billboards, the international community in partnership with traditional African societies must first address gender issues in order to reduce HIV transmission throughout Africa.   








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