28 June 2011

Zimbabwe: Some Cultural Practices Fuel HIV


Traditionally, if a man admired a woman, he did not necessarily need to go through the courtship process but could simply carry the bride-to-be on his shoulders kicking and screaming to his home.

Once the woman spent a night away, she was not accepted back by her family and was considered married. This practice was known as musenga bere.

Although musenga bere is no longer practiced, there are many other traditional and cultural practices still prevalent in Zimbabwe that some critics blame for fuelling the spread of HIV among women.

These include chiramu, a practice where an elder sister's or aunt's husband may fondle and sometimes end up either having consensual sex or raping the younger sister or niece.

Another practice is lobola (bride price) where in some cases after paying a fortune, a groom ends up treating his wife like a commodity.

"Women and girls are vulnerable to HIV and Aids as they may not have power to negotiate safe sex due to traditional practices such as lobola," said Kelvin Hazangwi, National Director of Padare a Men's Forum on Gender.

"Lobola is a good traditional practice. It builds relationships and families, but it becomes a problem when it is commercialised - with women being treated as gadgets in the home."

Chief Nebiri of Kariba constituency, who is also a member of a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on HIV and Aids, concurred that lobola is being commercialised "yet in the olden days it was just a token of appreciation paid in the form of cattle, goats and hoes."

He admitted that there are some traditional practices such as inheritance and polygamy that can no longer be encouraged in the wake of HIV and Aids.

"We cannot follow those traditions because they fuel HIV," he said, adding, "Let us practice our culture but at the same time protect ourselves from HIV."

He also attributed the high HIV prevalence rate in women to poverty.

On inheritance he encouraged men to look after the children of their deceased relatives instead of sleeping with the widows.

However, critics argue that women are still not empowered to decline being inherited for fear of losing their children and properties.

"Given the subordinate and dependent position of women in society, it is a challenge for women to deny the practice of inheritance; more so ask for HIV testing before marriage," says Naome Chimbetete, Executive Director of Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre & Network.

Mary Sandasi, Director of Women & Aids Support Network, said women are more vulnerable to HIV because they are disadvantaged, less educated and less economically independent to negotiate safe sex.

"The first sexual experience for many girls happens with little or no knowledge of how to deal with relationships or protect themselves," she said.

The risk is equally greater in informal polygamous relationships popularly known as "small houses."

"In polygamous relationships, sexual intercourse intervals are uneven," said Chimbetete adding, "Partners are likely to look for sexual pleasure and satisfaction elsewhere outside that relationship.

"As a result, the sexual network becomes complicated - increasing chances of HIV infection."

The National Aids Council (NAC) estimates that 60 percent of people living with HIV (594,847) are women. Over 1,1 million people in Zimbabwe are living with HIV.

According to NAC, women vulnerability to HIV infection is increased by cultural and behavioural factors such as gender stereotypes, which reduce the leverage women have in negotiating protection with their partners, lack of control over a partner's infidelity, poor literacy and multiple partners which are culturally accepted.

Chimbetete called for economic empowerment of women saying that without economic independence, women feel their marriages are threatened by asking for safe sex from their partners.

Up to the 1980s, young girls were forced by their mothers and aunts to "pull" their labia minora so as to please their husbands sexually once married. The practice is still common in some cultures.

Chimbetete said although no instrument is used, long labia minora are potential breeding grounds for infection.

"The labia are soft, prone to frictional damage during intercourse - increasing chances of HIV transmission," she said.

She urged government to come up with programmes that look at the impact of harmful cultural practices from health, social and psychological perspectives.

"Traditional leaders such as chiefs and village heads must be enlightened on the impact of these practices on women's health," she said.

Meanwhile, Hazangwi said Padare is working with community leaders, men and boys in providing education on how they relate to women and girls as well as on promoting behavioural change.

He said there is need to provide information to men to promote health seeking behaviours, going for HIV testing and becoming role models in their societies.

"Men should reach out to other men with positive messages. They possess power and should use it in a positive way to protect women from HIV and Aids," he said.

Chief Ngungumbane of Mberengwa, who is also a member of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on HIV and Aids, said people should not always look at the negative aspects of culture but also the positives.

"As custodians of culture, we feel disappointed when only the negative aspects of culture are highlighted in the escalation of HIV and Aids," he said.

Chief Ngungumbane said there is need to clear misconceptions about some cultural practices; citing male circumcision (MC), which he sid was initially castigated by the West but is now being propagated as a method that can reduce the risk of HIV infection in men by approximately 60 percent.

"It is disappointing to note that this traditional practice was condemned but is now being practiced in hospitals. That is plagiarism, because people are taking a traditional practice and using it without acknowledging the source."

He said initiation marked the graduation from boyhood to manhood, whereby boys were taught about their roles in society, but with circumcision now being conducted in hospitals, a deficiency has been created.

"We have serious moral decadence because our cultural norms and values have been destroyed at the expense of internationalised culture," said Chief Ngungumbane.

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