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Tackling the impact of customs on AIDS
Tuesday 26 April 2005
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ZIMBABWE: Tackling the impact of customs on AIDS

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  WFP

Some women are weighed down by traditional custom, depite the risk of HIV/AIDS

HARARE, 17 August (PLUSNEWS) - Traditional practices of polygamy, virginity testing and 'kugara nhaka' (wife inheritance), inhibit women's control over their bodies and increase vulnerability to HIV infection, but activists are split on the best way to tackle the customs.

The Girl Child Network (GCN) believes in empowering girls to resist virginity testing. Other advocacy groups favour tighter legislation against high-risk behaviour performed "in the name of culture". Still others believe in empowering women to make informed decisions within the context of traditional culture, given the hostility of many community leaders to attempts to tamper with custom.

"Where the cultural practice is not seen as a violation and is believed in, it's difficult to police," said Emedie Gunduza, advocacy officer of the Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN). She told PlusNews that the more economically disadvantaged the woman, the more prone she was to wife inheritance.

GCN director Betty Makoni said virginity testing took place not only at ceremonies sanctioned by rural chiefs, but also in churches and the home, where it was performed by "the girl's mother, an aunt, a neighbour or even the prospective husband".

Contrary to the cultural belief that testing reduced promiscuity and the rate of HIV infection, Makoni noted it could actually fuel rape, as girls became targets of HIV-infected men who believed sex with a virgin could cure them. In some Pentecostal churches, once a girl's virginity was confirmed, "a male member of the congregation might rape the girl, confess in front of the whole congregation, and then agree to marry her. The power to resist must therefore rest in the girl's own hands," she said.

Some groups believed the practice would be much more acceptable if boys were tested too, but Makoni disagreed. "We say the insertion of a finger or anything in a child's vagina is sexual abuse. It violates the most critical part of a child's body and girls must report it."

GCN has 156 girls' clubs in 11 mostly rural areas, where girls are taught about their rights and given survival skills. Several chiefs now frowned on the practice of virginity testing, but in areas where there was resistance, GCN's "underground work" had resulted in many girls refusing to attend ceremonies, Makoni said.

One such ceremony organised earlier this year in the Rusape area, close to the capital, Harare, reportedly collapsed through non-attendance by the girls. "The greater the girls take up the challenge of refusing, the greater the chances of virginity testing being phased out," Makoni told PlusNews.

Bold interventions against 'nhaka' and polygamy are more difficult, as the work of the Zimbabwe Open University's (ZOU) Committee on HIV and AIDS has shown.

After an evaluation exercise with its students last year, the university reported that 73.7 percent rated 'nhaka' as top of the list of practices fuelling HIV because of the possibility of infection if a widow was passed to her deceased husband's brother. But attempts to lobby traditional leaders were unsuccessful, with the leaders rejecting notions that 'nhaka' and polygamy necessarily fuelled the pandemic.

"They said there was no proven research that women in these relationships had a problem," David Chakuchichi, chairman of ZOU's HIV and AIDS Committee told PlusNews. Traditional leaders demanded the right to correct from within whatever was proved to be fuelling the pandemic, while leaving the practices intact, he said.

WASN, however, said it had recorded success when it worked through traditional structures and targeted HIV/AIDS issues in a more holistic way. In a three-year evaluation exercise in Chikwakwa, 50 km outside Harare, where infection was believed to be high and ignorance of the disease prevalent, they found that once women were equipped with information and negotiating skills, they were able to make informed decisions on matters concerning high-risk behaviour.

Consequently, STIs and teenage pregnancies had dropped significantly, and there was greater openness to discussing HIV issues. For example, "the women indicated that the female condom put them in control and the men preferred it to the male condom," said advocacy officer Gunduza.

She put that success down to an "enabling environment" created by health workers and community leaders, which might not have been possible had a more aggressive approach been taken.


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