In-depth: SUDAN: Conflict and conservatism

SUDAN: HIV, sexual violence messages struggle to get across

Photo: Keishamaza Rukikaire/IRIN
The virus, intended to scare locals into changing their behaviour
EL FASHER, DARFUR, 4 December 2007 (PlusNews) - A short skit on HIV grips the attention of the audience; the HI virus, dressed in bright red and wearing what is intended to be a horrifying mask, warns of the doom that is sure to follow anyone who dares to take sexual risks.

The skit's protagonist contracted HIV from a scheming 'town' girl, who, having discovered her own status, sets out to infect 150 men with HIV.

The message might be skewed, painting AIDS as a virtual death sentence and people living with the virus as malicious individuals intent on passing it on, but the performance also clearly demonstrates the key messages about HIV prevention and treatment.

At the very least the residents of Abu Shouk camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Sudan's North Darfur State, where it was performed, were able to hear about HIV, which was not the case a few years ago, when the subject of HIV/AIDS was taboo in Sudan.

The drama was organised by CHF International a non-governmental organisation (NGO), as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign.

Sexual and gender-based violence are widespread in Darfur, where war broke out in 2003 and insecurity still prevails. Going to fetch water or firewood is often a daily risk for women across the region - it is on these journeys that bandits tend to perpetrate violent sexual assaults.

CHF, which aims to improve the social and economic lives of poor communities around the world, has taught women at Abu Shouk how to make and use fuel-efficient stoves that reduce the number of trips made to collect firewood, thus reducing their risk of attack.

"Domestic violence, rape, sexual exploitation of children, forced marriage - they all have consequences, including death and HIV/AIDS," CHF's Salawa Badria told the crowd of several hundred.

''Domestic violence, rape, sexual exploitation of children, forced marriage - they all have consequences, including death and HIV/AIDS''
The 16 Days campaign takes place every year between 25 November and 10 December, and was launched in 1991 by the Centre for Women's Global Leadership, which develops and facilitates women's leadership for human rights and social justice worldwide.

Badria urged the camp's residents to educate their children, particularly the girls, whom she said would grow into women who could teach their sons the value of respect for women. Birth rates in the camps are high because family planning goes against the local culture and men marry as many as four wives.

Female genital mutilation and early marriage are common, as is domestic violence, but it goes largely unreported. Most women do not leave their abusive husbands, so reporting a beating to the authorities would only worsen their domestic situation.

"Changing culture is a process - we cannot push ideas on people," one NGO official told IRIN/PlusNews. "What we can do is let them know their rights under the law, and treat and counsel them when they have been attacked - the rest, we hope, will come gradually."

Other performances during the celebration highlighted how deep the culture of reverence to men runs: despite the theme of the day, one song - which had members of the audience up and dancing around the singer - urged women to obey their husbands without complaint and cater to their every whim; there was no similar advice on how a man should treat his wife.

Nonetheless, NGOs working in Darfur feel things are looking up: people are getting the information about how HIV is spread and how to avoid it, more women are using contraceptive pills to space their families, and people said the hundreds of children engrossed in the play unfolding on the CHF stage were all enrolled in school. For the health and social workers here, better a skewed message than none at all.

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