Monday, December 26, 2011

The Zambian HIV/AIDS Cycle

By Sara DuBois
In Lusaka, Zambia

Every individual who has never visited Africa has a stereotypical perspective of what the continent is like. In the three weeks I have spent in Zambia, I can say that many of those stereotypes can be discredited, except for one. HIV/AIDS has been a common topic of discussion on this trip. I have discovered that this disease is a tough battle to fight due to cultural values and norms, which in turn creates a deadly cycle.

Over 80% of the Zambian population is of a Christian faith. A common belief of Christians is to wait for marriage to have a sexual partner. However this is not a rule that many people follow. One thing that some religious and cultural denominations discourage is birth control methods due to the idea that sexual interactions are for procreation only. Therefore the majority of the population is rejecting the need to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS because of their religious values.

The Zambian culture is becoming very westernized, but despite its rapid depletion of the native culture there are several traditional customs that still remain. One of those customs is the act of polygamy. We have visited several villages and we often hear of polygamy within the families. A man can marry as many women as he desires. It’s not uncommon for a man to have 10 wives. If one wife or the husband were to stray away with another partner and contract the HIV virus then when they return to their partner it will spread to every wife and husband and sometimes children who are born with an HIV positive mother. This creates a rapid exchange of the virus and causes major problems within the village because they often times live in rural areas that do not have access to medical treatment.

Sexual Cleansing
Another factor that contributes to the HIV/AIDS epidemic is this idea of sexual cleansing. This means that when a woman or young girl’s man relative passes away, she must sleep with her relatives brother and marry him in order to be ‘sexually cleansed’. This is another way to spread the virus rapidly, especially if polygamy is a factor. Although this practice is slowly declining it is still an issue within villages.

Women’s Rights
By observation I have noticed several things about women and their rights. In most villages women are responsible for catching and cooking the food while also carrying their children around with them. They carry objects on their heads because it is easier on their body since they don’t have men helping with the heavy lifting. Women also are the last to take a bath within the family and as Chief Nkana said, “Women must do their duties and save the biggest piece of chicken for the man of the house”. These methods are frustrating to see and hear. Women do not have a choice if their husbands want to marry another woman, the men in the remote villages of Zambia do not support the government’s efforts of gender equality and empowerment, which include affirmative actions for women to become leaders in many villages.  In many villages a young woman’s parents can chose who to marry her off as young as 13 years old to an older man. These inequalities make it impossible to structure safe sex practices because of the male dominance.

When I went to the central province with World Vision staff to check on a rural project I noticed there were no men around. When I asked them where the men were they laughed and simply said that they go out drinking during the day. I asked the women how they feel about that and they know that it’s an injustice, no matter how long it has been going on. They feel no empowerment and no partnership in marriage. Seeing this made me realize how strong the women are here because despite their inequalities, they are the ones in my opinion that keep the nation running.

Much work has been done towards AIDS relief and prevention, but it’s still a battle that will take years of healthy living fixtures. Cultural and social norms and values cannot be easily erased. When we went to the University Teaching Hospital of Zambia we discovered that the number one cause of death is from HIV/AIDS. That was a shocking discovery considering that it is the largest hospital in Zambia and there was nothing they could do to assist those who have the virus. In my discoveries Africa suffers from this horrible HIV/AIDS disease and to see it firsthand really gives a perspective of a need for change. Mean-time people are striving to create a positive and healthy change that doesn’t affect people’s cultures or values and overall lessen the number of causalities in this disease.

Sara DuBois is one of 18 students from Ohio University who studied abroad in Zambia over winter intercession through the Institute for International Journalism.
She is a senior Communication Studies major with related areas in Public Relations and Health. 

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