TANZANIA: Women caught in crossfire of HIV battle

Photo: Georgia.G/Flickr
Community workers say a return to old school values can be achieved through communication rather than violence
MKINGA, 18 August 2010 (PlusNews) - Regina Joseph was beaten up by a group of young men for "dressing indecently" on her way to the local market in northeastern Tanzania's Mkinga District.

"They stopped me and told me to remove my clothes because the way I was dressed, it is as if I wanted to walk naked," the 21-year-old told IRIN/PlusNews. "I was afraid and I did as they told me - I removed my clothes and they started mocking me."

According to Joseph, the men were punishing her for allegedly dressing in an alluring way with the intention of passing on the HIV virus.

"They say I wanted to spread HIV, yet they didn't know my status," she said.

Among the Digo community in Mkinga, elders are trying to fight HIV, but their methods, which often involve punishing women perceived to be immoral, are misguided, say health workers.

"Communities believe in upholding moral values but while having morals is good, people have rights and when you punish them for wearing certain clothes... you defeat your cause," Godwin Msumba, a community health worker, said.

Harmful beliefs

Josiah Makulu, 67, a community elder in Mkinga, believes returning to ancient cultural values is the best way to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. He and several other elders have been encouraging locals to punish "inappropriately" dressed women.

''If women start dressing decently no man will have to look at them and people will only have their wives''
"Why are they giving out condoms when we can go back to our culture?" he asked. "If women start dressing decently no man will have to look at them and people will only have their wives.

"The way they are dressing today ... they are leading young men astray," he added.

Sheik Omar Abdallah, another elder, also blames women's choice of clothing for putting local communities at risk. "If you find a man sleeping with many women, it is because those women have attracted him in one way," he said.

Local authorities in Mkinga are fighting such attitudes and trying to educate the local community to behave more responsibly and with more respect for women's rights.

Changing attitudes

"When you punish women for dressing indecently, then it is like you are putting the responsibility of making sure you stay free of HIV on others," Msumba said. "First and foremost it is your responsibility and people must be made to know this. We have tried to educate people that somebody's [clothing] is not an invitation to have sex."

Msumba said the district's HIV/AIDS committee had brought in legal experts and police officers to explain to the elders and locals the consequences of violence against women. "Now some of them know what they have been doing is gender-based violence."

Augustine Hagu, district HIV/AIDS coordinator for Mkinga, said local people needed to be educated about the correct ways of fighting the spread of HIV.

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"The way they are doing it, they are doing more damage because some people are being criminalized and discriminated against in the process," he said.

Among young men in Mkinga, the education efforts of community workers seem to be paying off; Levin Masele, 25, says he does not believe in flogging women for the way they are dressed.

"What are you saying when you tell people a woman in a short skirt wants sex? You are telling them also that it is good to rape such a woman because she wanted sex," he said. "We have heard cases where men have raped women and then say [it was because] they were putting on miniskirts. It is bad and I can't support it."


Theme (s): Arts/Culture - PlusNews, Education, Gender Issues, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

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

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Young sex workers stand outside a bar, March 2007
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