The impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa continues to be a problem. Research has shown that the main form of HIV transmission is heterosexual sex. In Africa, and according to African culture, men are permitted to have more sex partners than women, and often free to engage in commercial sex. The spread of HIV and AIDS cannot be controlled until we have clearly and adequately dealt with problematic areas in African cultural traditions and common myths about sex. The following areas are some of the areas that will need to be examined in the fight against HIV and AIDS:
Males with multi-partners
Polygamy is still very common in the rural villages in South Africa. Men have a choice of marrying more than one wife whereas women are treated as subjects of men and they do not have this choice. Beside polygamy, men seem to have the freedom to sleep with whomever they want at whatever time. In this regard, traditional leaders act as role models. King Mswati chooses a new wife every time when there is reed dance celebration; King Goodwill has more than one wife; the current State President of the country has more than one wife, to mention a few.
Women in South Africa have gained substantial rights and opportunities since 1994, but this has not yet adequately dealt with inequalities which are still very prevalent among the genders. African culture continues to promote patriarchy in many ways and this perpetuates the subordination of women. One major issue surrounding women in South Africa is the problem of violence. Abuse against women and children is still extremely common and feeds into the culture and tradition of male dominance. Because women are still refused rights and are seen as inferior to men, they are more likely to be mistreated at the work-place, in the community and at a personal level. Women are viewed as the property of men, first of their fathers and then, when they get married, of their husbands. This is encouraging male dominance and also increases and encourages violence against women. In order to stop the spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, women need to be given power and control over themselves and their sexual lives. If women are given the authority that they deserve, men will not be able to make decisions for women regarding sexual practices. These issues regarding women’s rights and equality have an important and substantial impact on the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS.
In African culture and African traditional life, gender is defined according to roles and functions in the society. It is what it means to be male or female in a certain society that shapes the opportunities one is offered in life, the roles one may play, and the kinds of relationships one may have. These produce social norms in Africa that strongly influence the spread of HIV infection. For women, risk-taking and vulnerability to infection are increased by norms that make it inappropriate for women to be knowledgeable about sexuality or to seek advice on contraception. Gender norms also influence the way in which family members experience and cope with HIV and with AIDS deaths. The attention for prevention is taken away from men and their roles in the society. One good example is highlighted by Daniell (2009) who in his article said that “virginity testing of girls helps to draw attention away from the role of men in the maturing epidemic, consideration of which has been conspicuously absent in the popular discourse on AIDS at all levels of South African society”.
Accommodating young people
Adults often assume that young people are too young to discuss and be concerned about sex. However, these assumptions are often based on their own embarrassment about the subject and prevent young people from having access to the information they need for healthy relationships. There is a much needed provision of accurate information on sexual and reproductive health and suggested activities aimed at exploring values and attitudes in relation to culture and the changing world. Schools can be a site of vulnerability to HIV infection where girls, in particular, are at risk from abuse by teachers and older pupils. Young men need to reflect about how traditional and negative male behaviours affect their own lives and how they can construct alternative ways of interacting in their intimate relationships. We need to understand how young people make decisions and what influences their behaviours. For young people, norms that discourage access to information and services for safer sex can mislead them in cultures where HIV is seen as a sign of sexual promiscuity. Gender norms shape the way men and women infected with HIV are perceived, in that HIV-positive women face greater stigmatization and rejection than men.
Male homosexual behaviour
Currently very few services exist which address the needs of sexually active male homosexuals. They often experience discrimination when accessing many health care services. Many people are ignorant or have no knowledge at all on the issues which are affecting people, particularly men who have sex with men and gay men, particularly in relation to their sexual health. The African male attitude towards HIV/AIDS and its prevention African men are suspicious of HIV and AIDS prevention strategies. Many men see these programs as birth control programs. Others find it difficult to understand how one can are condoms and still enjoy sex. Condom usage prevents ‘flesh to flesh’ contact in sex. There is also a belief that this practice wastes one’s ‘bullets’ (i.e. sperm), which might be against God and ancestors.
Male dominance in an African culture is a factor in the spread of HIV and AIDS in South Africa. The current rate of HIV/AIDS infection in South Africa is very high. For most women it is almost impossible to contemplate assertiveness in a sexual relationship with a man and negotiate safer sex. There are few projects that have attempted to deal with male dominance in South Africa. Some of these projects deal specifically with the abuse of women and rape. There are very few programs that serve men on HIV and AIDS issues. A lot has been written on the subject of women’s vulnerability, cultural norms making it difficult to fight HIV and AIDS and on gender issues which helps to clarify the gender roles and the need to be aware of gender injustices and inequality. There is, however, very little written on the elements of African culture that helps to spread the infection. The state, public and private sector have worked together in different levels to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. The government of South Africa together with all NGO, CBOs and FBOs support the main strategy of prevention: Abstain, Be faithful and Condomise (ABC). The media is also playing a role with programs such as Soul City, Lovelife and many others. South Africa, which has the highest number of people living with HIV and suffering from AIDS, has suffered severely with people responding in different ways to the epidemic. Some religious groups have seen HIV and AIDS as a punishment from God(s) or ancestors for the evil people have committed. The ABC prevention strategy has met different criticism, especially from men who do not believe that they can enjoy sex with condom usage. There are also those that believe that HIV and AIDS was a man-made attempt to wipe out a certain group of people. In response to all these claims, people have come up with theories on how to heal, protect and prevent themselves from contracting HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately those who are powerless in our societies bear the brunt of these wrong beliefs about AIDS. Women and youth are abused and raped. Young girls are raped with some believing that sleeping with a virgin is a cure for AIDS. Some influential men in South Africa have come up with strategies to educate men against these abuses and to openly admit the wrongfulness of both abuse and rape. Two such projects are Real Men Care and Million Men March. These are all good attempts, but they haven’t yet struck a cord in men’s hearts and minds that will awaken them and to see the reality. There are men today who do not believe in HIV and AIDS; they have their own interpretation of the diseases. Some men see it as women’s diseases because many women are infected, some are afraid, feel helpless and not know how to respond to the epidemic.
There are cultural norms among the African people which promote male dominance and treat women as subordinate to men. These norms influence the continuing spread of HIV and AIDS. Many of these are ingrained within the cultural values and beliefs. Until these cultural norms are dealt with, the problems surrounding women and HIV and AIDS cannot be addressed and combated. Women deserve to be respected and treated as equals by their male counterparts, especially when it has such a large influence over the possibility of life and death. Men, at the same time, are seen as powerful people in the culture and fail to respect women and youth. Unless we deal with this lack of respect for women and youth, HIV and AIDS will continue to Spread in Africa.