Women endangered by patriarchal traditions

>> allAfrica.com: Uganda: Patriarchal Traditions Driving HIV Pandemic

In this opinion piece from the Ugandan paper New Vision, Apophia Agiresaasi argues that “the vulnerability of girls and women to HIV/AIDS has its roots in the African patriarchal traditions […] whereby men still hold the power, authority, control and privileges, both in private and public spheres and the low status accorded to women.”

The argument is compelling, given that among Ugandan 15 to 24-year-olds with HIV, girls outnumber boys 4 to 1.  This type of situation isn’t unique to Uganda — see, for example this Sept. 9 article from Rwanda’s New Times. It reports that in Rwanda, “Girls aged 20-24 are five times more likely to be infected with HIV than boys of the same age.”

Agiresaasi’s Argument

Girls, Agiresaasi writes, are taught to believe that “women are supposed to be submissive, service oriented and self sacrificial,” that they are “duty bound to impress men at all costs” and that “whatever men say should be acceptable.”  Many “are more informed about their inadequacies that they are about their potentials and abilities,” and “made to believe that they cannot achieve anything unless they tag themselves on to a man.”

Burdened with these assumptions, girls are ill-prepared to evaluate the behavior of men or to protect themselves from dangerous sexual situations: “when a stranger lavishes on them attention, they may not take time off to assess whether it is genuine or it is just a ploy to appease his lust.”

Therefore, Agiresaasi asserts, “The gender inequality spelled out by these traditions is synonymous with the gender inequality of the pandemic.”

Early marriage, “rape, defilement, polygamy, incest and a myriad of other factors whose cause is the deeply entrenched in patriarchal deformities” put women at greater risk for contracting HIV.  Problems such as “gendered and unfair division of labour in looking after the AIDS patients, unequal access to resources, including health care and services, women’s powerlessness, low social worth and the inability to make decisions even about their own lives” cause women to be “more affected and infected by HIV/AIDS across the spectrum.”

The net result: “HIV/AIDS has added burdens to an already burdened, powerless, victimised, oppressed and undervalued group.”

Comments

Wow.  Agiresaasi’s argument is eloquent, powerful, and, I think most AIDS experts and advocates would agree, dead on.

Since the emergence of HIV/AIDS as a recognized disease, much of the developing world has seen a “feminization of the epidemic” — similar to another global problem, the “feminization of poverty.”  When women are marginalized, they are put at risk.  Powerlessness is a dangerous thing.  Often, it is deadly.

If you’ve ever wondered why women’s rights are often discussed right alongside HIV/AIDS: this is why.  When women and girls lack the education they need to manage their lives; when they lack legal, political, and economic rights; when they don’t have control over who does what to their bodies; when they are subject to traditions that pose threats to their safety; when they are not only deprived of the means to protect themselves, but also taught that they should not even try; when men and women alike are allowed to believe that women don’t matter — when these things happen, women are in danger.  Sometimes that danger takes the form of AIDS.

This is not how it should be.  Fortunately, many organizations and groups are working to change things.  Inexplicably, some aren’t.  Addressing one of the main issues head on, a PlusNews blog post asks, “Is culture the last taboo?”  The question may be one of life and death to many women (among others):

Although we’ve long known that some cultural practices increase people’s risk of HIV infection, governments and aid agencies have often lacked the stomach to take on local custodians of tradition and culture. Women, in particular, have paid the price. Socially accepted norms labelled as “cultural” have violated their human rights, prevented them from achieving economic independence and minimised their control in sexual relationships.

The post ends with this quote from Elizabeth Mataka, the UN’s special envoy on AIDS: “Culture is a dynamic organism, it’s not static, but more often than not people hide behind it,” Mataka said. “I think the time has come for us to say, yes, culture is what defines us, but if culture is killing us we need to be bold enough to say that.”  I like that quote — it says so much, so well.

Agiresaasi ends her article with a powerful call to action:

It is time visionary people and traditional leaders started re-examining how boys and girls in the past have been socialised and the values that have been passed or not passed on to them.

It is not a coincidence that the most patriarchal societies are the those where the HIV/AIDS pandemic is ravaging humanity with the greatest impact.

Political leaders should create a legal framework that gives women an opportunity to resist the virus before the nation is depopulated of its mothers.

Amen.

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~ by h.e.g. on September 9, 2008.

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