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Denial, stigma fuel HIV/AIDS

Traditional practices, stigma and denial that surround HIV/AIDS have fuelled the spread of the pandemic.
Kholwani Nyathi

“People avoid talking about it. Living in denial to keep the family from social condemnation is a norm, not an exception. It is common to hear the relation of a dead person at the funeral identify the cause of the death as witchcraft or poisoning,“ said Dorothy Littler of the Swaziland National Commission for UNESCO at a recent UN regional Aids Conference in the capital, Mbabane. “Even officially the cause of death is often explained away as a long illness, pneumonia or a persistent headache”.

According to a paper titled “Gender and Post -Literacy a non-Formal Education Approach to HIV/AIDS” prepared by AIDS activists and health communication professionals from Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, culture plays a significant role in the acceptance of one’s status and the ability to live positively with the virus.

About 30 women and men, some of them HIV positive met at a workshop with the intention of developing materials that will assist them deal with issues of stigma and discrimination. Based on the UNESCO manual, Gender Sensitivity, a variety of activities helped participants sharpen their own sensitivity towards issues related to power relationships between the sexes and how these influence the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“HIV/AIDS is about people and their intimate relationships. I could hardly think of anything more important to people than their sex life”, said Alan Brody of UNICEF, Swaziland. Because of this denial and stigma attached to the virus, some HIV positive women have been found breastfeeding their babies.

In Swazi culture, a man is allowed to marry as many wives as he wishes and an initiation practice for girls now referred to as the ‘Hyena’ requires a girl’s uncle to break her virginity before she could be allowed to have a relationship. Because it is such a hush-hush, taboo subject, several worrying misconceptions about HIV/AIDS have spread among many people in this culturally conservative kingdom.

In October, editors of “The Times of Swaziland”, the country’s only independent news organ were summoned to a meeting with royal advisors to King Mswati III and warned that publishing a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report that suggested cultural practices were fuelling the spread of HIV/AIDS would be unpatriotic.

The study titled “Gender Focused Responses to HIV/AIDS in Swaziland” said some age old Swazi customs intended to keep girls chaste before marriage, arranged marriages, society’s approval of multiple sexual partners for men and widow inheritance placed more people at risk of infection.

“Swazi society expects women to be subordinate and submissive; allows men to have many multiple sexual partners and polygamy which exposes women to HIV infection”, the UNDP report noted.

Daphne Mthembu, an advisor to the Swaziland branch of Women in Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) says the lack of acceptance by the Swazi monarchy that cultural practices may contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS are some of the obstacles to the eradication of stigma and the discrimination of people living with AIDS.

“If our leaders deny that having multiple sexual partners or inheriting a widow whose husband might have died of HIV/AIDS may lead to new infections then campaigns to encourage people infected with the disease to come out in the open would come to naught,” said Mthembu in response to the government’s attempt to stifle debate on the UNDP report.

Organisers of this year’s World Aids Day Commemorations held on the 1st of December country wide were also emphasising on the need for openness and the acceptance of those living with the disease as normal.

A health ministry survey taken at the beginning of this year found that 34.4 of adult Swazis have either the HIV virus or full blown AIDS, and projected that one quarter of the population would be dead from the disease by 2010.

“The elimination of stigma and discrimination has to start from the top. Our leaders have to admit that AIDS is real and that it has killed thousands of our brothers and sisters. We know that discarding a tradition is something that our ancestors won’t smile at but the present situation demands that we do away with all those cultural practises that will deny our children a life,” said Bhekimpi Dlamini, who is HIV positive.

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