14 December 2006

Namibia: Cultural Practices Hamper Aids Fight

Windhoek — THE motto "abstain, be faithful and condomise" - magic words which promised to eradicate HIV and AIDS from the face of the planet - isn't working, says the Women's Leadership Centre (WLC), a Windhoek-based feminist organisation.

The ABC strategy, the organisation argues, is being crushed by harmful cultural practices that govern the sexual behaviour of Namibian women and keep them at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

Female genital mutilation, dry sex, girls being initiated into womanhood through sex, and the unorthodox treatment often administered by traditional leaders were just some of the things criticised in Namibian society.

"In some communities girls are taught to elongate their labia minora by regular pulling and using a small stick, which makes the labia sore and swollen," the organisation's director, Elizabeth /Khaxas, said yesterday, adding that the vaginal sores which often develop as a result make these girls vulnerable to HIV infection.

"Girls and young women are taught to mutilate their genitals because men demand it.

How can girls refuse sex after it has taken them so many years to prepare their bodies for it," she said.

/Khaxas was speaking at a cheque signing ceremony, where the Finnish embassy granted the organisation an amount of 245 355 Euro (approximately N$1.9 million) for their work in helping women resist gender-based oppression.

/Khaxas revealed that some traditional healers apparently claim to cure infertility and backache in women by having sexual intercourse with them, while widows apparently have to be freed from their deceased husbands' ghost through sleeping with such traditional healers.

"Our cultures and traditions contain unconstitutional aspects that sustain and promote inequalities between women and men.

While HIV and AIDS wreak havoc amongst our people, it is also giving us the opportunity to address issues of inequalities and oppression that fuel the pandemic," /Khaxas said.

She called on religious leaders to stop teaching that men are superior to women, and to move away from advocating the existence of a male god, things she said detracts from a woman's choice of whether or not to engage in sex with their husbands.

"As long as we worship only a male God we can forget about gender equality," she said.

The grant from the Finnish embassy is to last the organisation for the next three and a half years, and is to be used for the continuation of a project entitled 'Women's Voices'.

The organisation says it will pay special attention to the Kavango and Caprivi regions for the next few years, where the conditions of rural women are especially dire.

Speaking in support of /Khaxas, the Finnish Embassy's Charge d' Affaires, Seija Kinni-Huttunen, praised the WLC for its work.

"Even though international human rights agreements leave some freedom of action in applying them, I would like to stress that violations of human rights cannot be justified by appealing to such factors as culture or religion," she said.

The WLC says it aims to publish a number of publications written by and about Namibian women throughout the next few years, while also organising workshops and conferences to educate women about their self-worth.

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