The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Beliefs - Barrier to Women's Health

opinion

Harare — In certain apostolic sects, women are not allowed to attend service during their monthly period as the church leaders - who happen to be male - have decreed that the women will be "unclean" at that time.

Fainess Machacha, the leader of an apostolic sect called The First Church of St Michael and Peter says that the bible discourages men from associating with women during the latter's "monthlies", therefore there is no doubt that the rule is valid. Machacha went on to say that even traditionally, only old women who were no longer experiencing monthlies were involved in preparing beverages for rituals.

Hunters were not allowed to be in women's company the night before a hunting expedition. Though extreme, this attitude encompasses the general Zimbabwean man's view towards the reproductive system and processes of a woman. There are countless illustrations of this in everyday life.

Dynamos Football Club clearly demonstrated the fear, revulsion and superstition that men associate with women when they dumped their woman physiotherapist, Abigail Munikwa because she was allegedly jinxing the team into losing just by her mere presence on the bench.

After a public outcry Dynamos officials denied firing Munikwa and claimed that she was still a member of the technical team. But in reality, that was the end of her career with the Premiership side.

As men are usually the dominant partner in the local setting, their negative views impact negatively on the women in their sphere of influence; wives, daughters, sisters and daughters-in law. The women end up taking the views of the men and endangering their health. "Women are socialised into believing that their bodies are naturally unclean. Added to this is the biblical stigmatisation of Eve as the cause of the fall of mankind from God's grace.

"It is hard enough for a woman to be comfortable with her body in the face of such attitudes. So for a woman in that situation to then fall prey to illnesses related to her reproductive system, it almost becomes a verdict that she is not a good woman." A woman who survived cervical cancer says that she nearly died because of traditional beliefs which stopped her from taking medical advice at a critical time.

"I had cervical cancer and the doctors recommended a hysterectomy. "I already had three children and I was 37 years old at the time. My own mother and my aunts advised me not to have it or I would lose my husband. 'A female without a womb is not a woman,' they kept on telling me.

"I deferred the operation for a long time until the cancer spread and it took a hysterectomy and chemotherapy to get cured. My husband stood by me and we lived happily until he passed away years later. "I went through a lot of pain and risked my life because of listening to advice based on cultural beliefs. I still feel rather bitter towards my relatives and my in-laws for what they made me suffer," she said.

A woman living positively with HIV recently told a group of journalists at a media workshop in Mutare that her late husband infected her with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) several times. In spite of that obvious sign that he was being unfaithful, she kept on having unprotected sex with him.

"One day I went into his office and I saw some medical records. I did not pry because it was my belief that I should wait for him to discuss issues with me. It was only after he died that I learnt that he had known that he was HIV positive and that he had revealed his status to his father and not told me," she recounted.

After hearing her father in-law announcing that his late son had died of Aids to the mourners at the funeral the woman realised that HIV had invaded her matrimonial union. "A married woman does not feel that it is right to ask her husband to use condoms, as these are associated with women of loose morals.

"But the sad thing is that the same men who drum that belief into their wives are also having unprotected sex with those same 'loose women' then coming back to sleep with the wife or steady partner," said a social worker who worked on a study of 120 women who were being treated for STIs at a Harare clinic.

"More than 70 percent of the cases that we deal with involve married women. What is even sadder is that some of them get treated without informing their husbands and are re-infected," she continued. One of the women who have been re-infected more than six times over a period of 12 months says that she does not talk about the infections to her husband because she fears that he may leave her.

"He has a small house and if I tell him that I have an STI he will then be disgusted with me and move to the other woman," she claimed. What is even more disturbing is that even reasonably educated women with a high degree of financial independence remain mired in the cultural practices that endanger their health and ultimately their lives.

A vendor in herbal remedies at Mupedzanhamo Market recently revealed that women from the upper end of the social strata visit him to buy love potions, which include powders that are inserted into their private parts. That is one of the practices that have been linked to cervical cancer and other problems of the female reproductive system. Other practices include the wife inheritance custom and the giving away of the girl child in marriages. Parents not placing enough emphasis on educating the girl child also lead to the girls growing into economically dependent women who may result to commercial sex work for survival.

The Domestic Violence Bill and other laws have been put in place to help women fight practices like marital rape and other forms of abuse that endanger their lives. But women still remain in violent relationships and cite culture as a deterrent against reporting their husbands and partners to the police for prosecution.

The female condom was introduced as a way of empowering women so that they would not have to beg a man to put on a condom. There have also been cases of men putting on condoms then taking them off on the sly thus forcing women to have unprotected sex while they think that they are safe.

But the female condom has had a limited impact on giving women real power over their sexual relations. "It is very difficult for me to take condoms in my handbag even when I know that I will probably have sex. It gives the man the impression that you are loose and that you go around ready to sleep with anyone who makes a move on you," revealed a single woman in her 30's who says she has had several short-term relationships including one-night stands.

She says she relies on the man for protection though she will ask if he has condoms before going into a bedroom with him. The medical world and the state have played their part in ensuring that female condoms meet the 4As that have been set as required standards for factors in fighting HIV.

They are "Accessible, Available and Affordable". But the fourth A, Acceptability has remained elusive as most women have let cultural barriers stop them from taking the initiative to use the female condom and protect themselves.

In the same vein, women need to take responsibility for their lives and their health and critically assess the beliefs that they are handed as part of tradition and religion. The state and the medical experts can only do so much. It is up to the women to use the power that is in their hands to ensure a healthy and satisfying reproductive life.

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