Saturday, May 6, 2006

Gender and its effects on the HIV / AIDS epidemic in Southern Africa

The HIV/AIDS empidemic in Southern Africa is one of biggest crisis that the continent is facing in the modern world. During my time studying abroad in South Africa, I learned a lot about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and about the cultural and social stigmas surrounding it. Coming from the US it seems like such a straight forward solution: education and safe sex. Pass out condoms and the problem will be solved.

The problem with this, however, is that it goes much deeper than just not having access to condoms or knowledge about the spread and prevention. While I was at UCT, I took a class on Gender and studied the part that gender rolls play in the spread of HIV. Today I was reading through my old papers and came across this one that I wrote about the topic. It is a little more formal than a typical blog post, but its pretty interesting so I thought I would share it.

Understanding The Transmission of HIV/AIDS
in Sub-Saharan Africa Through Gender

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is a problem of paramount proportions today in southern Africa. According to a fact sheet produced by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005, Sub-Saharan Africa, which houses just over 10% of the world’s population, is home to over 60% of all people living with HIV- 25.8 million people. However, although both men and women are biologically affected in very similar ways by the disease, the epidemic seems to be affecting more women than men. In Zambia, for example, girls age 15-19 are 3.4 times more likely to test positive for HIV than their male counterparts, with this figure jumping to 3.7 for women aged 20-24 (Underwood, 2006).

Because southern African women have been targeted as high-risk group for HIV transmission, their education has been the predominate focus of many prevention campaigns in recent years (Lesetedi, 2005; Oriej, 2005). Unfortunately, while women are becoming more and more aware of the dangers of unprotected sexual relations, their sexual practices tend to remain high-risk and unchanged (Wood, 1997; Peacock, 2005).

Several factors influence the high rates of transmission to young women, chief among them are gender inequality, the prevalence of gender-based violence, and the patriarchal nature of African societies. In addition, poverty and lack of education play a significant role in the heightened vulnerability of women (Wodi, 2005; Eaton, 2003; Mill 2002; Oriel, 2005).

The gender dynamics in southern African societies gives almost sole control to men in sexual relationships. It is often taken as a fact, for example, that men need sex on a regular basis and that it is their right to get it when and how they want it (Ng’weshemi, 1997). Often times, the refusal of women to have sex on command results in violence and abuse. In interviews of pregnant teens in a township in Cape Town, South Africa, Katherine Woods and Rachel Jewkes found that “Repeatedly, the language of the girls’ narratives was of compulsion: `he made me’ , `he just pushed me and overcame me’ , `he forced himself onto me’ , `he did as he wanted with me’, `what could I do? (1997)’”

In an interview by Dean Peacock, South African men recount their views on women growing up in South Africa. Lee Buthelezi, remembers “I was socially brought up knowing that if you want to have sex with a girl and she doesn’t want, you just klap [hit] her two or three times and she will give you want you want…. We were brought up in a manner that women should be beaten in order to get what you want from them (2005).”

This hierarchy found within heterosexual relationships is characteristic of many relationships in southern Africa. It often leaves women completely unable to influence condom use, especially within marriage. As Judy Mille points out “Monogamous women who realize that their husbands have multiple sexual contacts are often powerless to protect themselves from HIV infection (2002).”

Several factors affect women’s inability to influence condom use. One reason is that there is a social stigma that associates condoms with prostitution, infidelity, filth and disease. However in a report published by UNAIDS, it was found that in 14 countries the most common reason for men to refuse to wear a condom was because it reduced sexual pleasure (UNAIDS, 2000). This attitude is putting the man’s right to sexual pleasure above the right of the woman to protect herself from HIV. Unfortunately, women can face being accused of unfaithfulness, being beaten or even being abandoned upon asking a male partner to use condoms (Ng’weshemi 1997). In interviews conducted by Judy Mille, she found that

“The men conceded that they would interpret a request from their wife or girlfriend to use a condom as an indication that she had a sexually transmitted disease and that they would be very upset about this situation. None of the men considered the possibility that the woman might be asking him to use a condom to protect herself from disease (2002).”

A further gender-issue in the transmission of HIV is the high value placed on fertility in many African societies. In many communities, a woman is not considered a full woman until she has born children, and her social status within the community is closely linked to her ability to produce children (Mille, 2002). This societal obligation can not only affect the woman, but can also affect her unborn children. For instance, an HIV positive woman may continue on with a pregnancy, knowing the risk of transmission to her child, just to fulfill her duty as a woman (Mille, 2002).

The great desire for children also negates the use of condoms as protection from HIV and other sexual transmitted diseases, even if the man in the relationship is having extramarital affairs. In instances of infertility, most men will take a new partner, ignoring that they could be the reason for the lack of children. When women are abandoned because of their inability to bear children, they can become desperate and engage in high-risk behavior in order to prove that they can get pregnant. Mill explains,

“[They] try to become pregnant with different men with the hope that they would be exonerated as the cause of infertility. Rene knowingly risked the exposure of her partner and her unborn child to the HIV virus in order to fulfill her need to have a child. She became pregnant after learning that she was HIV sero-positive, without consulting her boyfriend and without the knowledge of the physicians and nurses at the Fever’s Unit (2002).”

Additionally, postpartum sexual abstinence is a common custom in many African societies and may further lead to a heightened risk of HIV transmission to married women. During this period of abstinence, which according to Judy Mille averages 13.8 months, many men will stray to find other women to fulfill their sexual needs while their wives are nursing their new born child. Again, because condoms are largely not acceptable in a marriage, the husband’s increased sexual partners indirectly put his wife at a heightened risk for infection (Mille, 2002).

The poverty prevalent in many African societies also plays a large role in the transmission of HIV; however, this again is a gendered issue. It is not uncommon for women to seek out boyfriends or sexual relationships with men who will be able to support them financially. In a study done by Catherine MacPhail, she found that money was not only a factor, but was one of the driving forces for females to become involved in relationships (2001). This practice leads to women seeking out relationships with older men who will have the means to provide for them, but who will inevitably have a longer sexual history than a younger male will (Eaton, 2003). The exchange of financial support for a sexual relationship can place the women at the mercy of the man’s sexual desires and often leads to unprotected sex. However, as Eaton points out, “From the woman’s perspective, protection from possible future illness may be a lower priority than meeting immediate economic needs (Eaton, 2003).”

Although much of this paper has focused on women being at particular risk for HIV transmission, the dominant notion of masculinity in southern Africa (males as being dominant, sex-driven and risk-taking) is also causing men to put themselves at high risk for infection. For instance, many cultures expect men to have more than one sexual partner and therefore promote promiscuous behavior by men. According to Ng’weshemi, “Men may feel pressured to ‘prove their masculinity’ by being dominant and having many sexual partners; they may fear ridicule from their friends if they remain faithful to one woman (1997: 89).” Furthermore, because men see themselves as ‘risk-takers’ they are inclined to reject the use of condoms as “unmanly” or view sexually transmitted diseases as “no more than an inconvenience (Lesetedi, 2005).”

It is clear through this cursory gender analysis of the transmission of HIV that this is a very complex epidemic. Although much of the focus of preventative programs is on the education and empowerment of women, it remains a fact that men need to take a leading role in the struggle if significant progress is to be made at stifling the progression. The gender inequalities that pervade most African societies must be acknowledged and dealt with. As stressed by Dean Peacock’s interviewees, it is important to change the way men view women in order to stop high-risk sexual practices. In the interview, Regis Mtutu states that, “When that empowered young girl engages with this young man, he cannot engage, and all he can do is to resort to violence, sexism and so forth.” He continues that we need to “look at how we resocialize the young boy from that early age onwards (2005).”

Through education and resocializing of young men in African communities, as time goes on, women will gain more and more access to their human rights. As Mbuyiselo Botha, an interviewee of Dean Peacock’s, said, “In the oppression of men lies the oppression of women. And in the liberation of women lies the liberation of men.”

Friday, April 21, 2006

Skydiving in Zimbabwe

I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about one of the stupidest things I have ever done….

During my spring break trip to Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe we had two days in Zambia near Zambezi River and Victoria Falls and thus near Zimbabwe. While we were there we had tons of activities to choose from and my group of friends and travel-buddies wanted to go skydiving.

Now there are a couple of reasons why I wish that I hadn’t done this. The first was that we were advised by the United States government not to visit Zimbabwe because of the political unrest… but eh wateves! The second and more important reason was that skydiving was going to take up one whole entire day and I had already done it a couple of times and there were other things that I’ve never done before that I wish I had taken advantage of (like microlighting over Victoria Falls).

But I decided to go with my friends to Zimbabwe to skydive. Now, in order to do this, we first had to cross the boarder from Zambia into Zimbabwe. And on our way in, what do we see?? The currency black market! Very bizarre! Basically, its a bunch of people with tons of various other country's money trading it back and forth. This is necessary because Zimbabwean currency is not recognized by the World Bank. So, everyone has to trade currency on the black market. Even my Zimbabwean friends who were going to school in South Africa had to trade on the black market to get South African Rand to pay for tuition. The situation there is quite dire. While we were in Zimbabwe, I got a $50,000 bill (worth a couple bucks or something) and it had an expatriation date on it! For like December 2003. It was crazy.

So anyway, we cross the boarder and are on our way to go skydiving. Here are some things I should have been thinking about: in a country with political unrest, staggering inflation and unemployment, and a completely useless currency, what type of safety regulations do they have on running a skydiving business and how are they enforced!? Yeah.. ok as I said, this was not the smartest thing I ever did.

Do we get to the airport and there is a TINY plane that can only fit three people: the piolet, Gary, the owner and tandem partner, and the customer (me or one of my friends). Since only one person can go at a time and there are 5 of us, we have to take 5 individual flights for us each to get a dive in, which was very frustrating.

Finally, after a couple of my friends go, its my turn. Gary comes to get me and takes me to the plane where one of his workers is filling up the gas take. Before we get in the plane, Gary checks the fuel and realizes that the guy had put regular gas (like for a car) in the left tank and not aviation gas!!! So what does he do? He siphons out the regular gas so that he can put the proper aviation gas in the tank. So lets think about this… The guy who I’m about to strap myself to and jump out of a plane with is huffing gasoline! Brilliant!

Then he says ‘ok we’ll just do the take off with the right gas tank and then when we get to about1,500 feet well switch to the left one and burn off the petrol.’ So I’m terrified because if this plane goes down, no one is surviving. On the way up, there was a lot of turbulence and all I can think to myself is that if I die in this plane my dad is going to kill me (yes I know that doesn't make any sense). And then, as I’m thinking that I’m about to die, I realize that the person who just screwed up the gasoline is the same guy who packed my parachute!!! Awesome, I have put my life in the hands of a careless minimum-wage worker and someone who is huffing gasoline… But at this point there was no turning back. So, I jumped out of the plane!

The view was pretty incredible. We could see Victoria falls off in the distance and the gorge that the river makes after the falls is massive and pretty inspiring. But, while it was a nice dive, if I had to rate the beauty of the view it would be 3rd on my list of 3 dives…. O well at least I'm alive and I got to go skydiving in Zimbabwe… I guess I can’t complain

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Garden Route

Last week my friends, Jaime, Aimee, Dave, Tim and I did an amazing 6-day road trip. We didn't have school on Wednesday (Election Day) so we skipped Thursday and Friday (I only missed two classes) and we took a trip along the Garden Route.

The Garden Route is a stretch of highway from Mossels Bay to Port Elizabeth along the eastern cape shore line. The trip was absolutely amazing. We could do it 5 times and never run out of new places to go and things to do.

Tuesday night we made the drive from Cape Town to Oudsthorn for our first stop. We stayed at a hostel and woke up early on Wednesday morning to take a tour of the Cango Caves. They were amazing.

After going through a couple HUGE caverns which were absolutely beautiful, we went on the "adventure tour" where we had to crawl on our tummies through tiny little passageways, twist and turn just to make it through, and slide down on our backs! It was my first time spelunking and it was awesome. Who would think caves could be so beautiful.

After the caves we went to an ostrich farm. There are TONS of them in that part of the country, and this one did not disappoint. At the ostrich farm we learned about the birds and then we got to pet some. Then they put a pellet of food in between our lips and the bird picked it out from our mouth and "kissed us!" Although it was a pretty neat experience, I would have to say that ostriches aren't very good kissers, and it's probably not something I would do again, given the choice.... it kind of hurt!

After that we got to RIDE THE OSTRICHES!! Yes that is what I said, I RODE an ostrich! It was freekin’ awesome. First they took a little sac and put it on the birds head. Although ostriches don’t actually put their head in the sand when they’re scared, there is some validity to the rumor. When an ostrich can't see you, it thinks you can't see it. And even though I was climbing on its back, it just chilled out and didn’t worry about a thing. Life is good in the dark. But as soon as they take the sack off its head, the bird realizes that something is on its back and freaks out and starts running around!

We all got some help mounting the bird, but I was laughing so hard that I fell off even before the bird started moving. Once I gained enough composure to sit properly on the bird, they took the sac off his head and away he went!!! It was crazy. He just ran around in circles 'till I fell off! I didn't last too long but it was super fun.

After we all had a turn the "ostrich jockeys" showed us how its really done. They just hopped right on and rode them all around the pen, directing where to go by pulling (gently) on the bird's neck, pull right, bird goes right, pull the neck back, the bird stops. It was crazy looking!
Next was an "ostrich neck massage." Basically they gave us a bucket of food and put us in front of about 5 ostriches (they were behind a fence w/ our backs to them) and they all just bolted over our shoulders and around our bodies to get to the food, it was probably the most ridiculous thing I have ever experienced! I was almost hyperventilating, I was laughing so hard!

At the end, we got to stand on some ostrich eggs which can really sustain the weight of a person! I have to say I was very impressed by my whole ostrich experience! Additionally, ostrich meat is delicious and good for you, its very lean meat. But their eggs are really high in fat and cholesterol. We had them for breakfast at our hostel but I didn't really like them. They had a weird texture very different from chicken eggs; fluffy, but maybe a little greasy and gritty too… bizarre. Did you know that one ostrich egg can feed up to 18 people!? Crazy stuff.

After the ostrich farm we went to a wild life ranch. Our intent was to pet some tigers, but it ended up being too expensive so we just walked around and saw a bunch of alligators and crocodiles and wild cats: cheetahs, tigers, jaguars, and lions..

The lions were quite interesting. There were three lionesses and one alpha male in the enclosure. After sitting there for a couple minutes, the male lion gets up and walks over toward one of the lionesses... And climbs on top of her, about 5 feet away from us!! It was crazy. There was a little moaning and then she rolled over, hit him in the face and he walked away. Then he walks over to another lioness and does the same thing. It was ummmm educational or at the very least...entertaining.

Thursday morning we got up early again and drove to a place called Wilderness. The entire drive was amazing, BEAUTIFUL green mountains on one side and an incredible shore-line on the other. At Wilderness we rented some canoes for the day and canoed down a river (we basically just moseyed down the river and let the current pull us). We stopped at the base of a trail and hiked up to a waterfall. After we swam in the water for a little while and then hiked down, got back in our canoes.

Unfortunately, at this point the wind had picked up. It got cold and started raining and we were paddling upstream. The wind was so strong that we were actually being blown backwards and into the shore. It was probably the most difficult thing I've done in quite a while. I was definitely not a happy camper!

After our long day we went to an Italian restaurant in town and right in the middle of dinner the power went out!! (due to the "rolling blackouts" the country has been experiencing lately) Go figure. South Africa is a funny place, but the wait staff and other workers just kept going like nothing happened, and everyone finished their dinners by candle light. Just another blackout!

Friday morning we drove to Knysna for breakfast. It is a gorgeous coastal town with amazing sandstone cliffs that mark the entrance into a beautiful lagoon. It was breathtaking. We hung out there for the morning and explored a little before heading off to Plettenburg bay. Once we got there, our first stop was monkey land for lunch.

Monkeyland is an open monkey sanctuary where the monkeys roam free w/in the place and there are no barriers between the human visitors and the monkeys. It was crazy. They have over 200 monkeys there. So at lunch lots of monkeys hang out near the deck where the lunch seating is hoping to snatch some food from unsuspecting people! A monkey actually ran across my table trying to get my Lays potato chips!!! And one got someone's yogurt and a soda can! It was hysterical and a little unnerving. They were running under our chairs and we even saw one little momma monkey with a little baby monkey clinging to her back. After lunch, we went on a tour of the forest where they live. The whole time we were walking around there were monkeys playing over our heads and running across our path. It was sweet.

Next was the elephant sanctuary which was one of the most awesome things I've ever done! The place has 6 domesticated elephants that they have 'rescued' from less desirable conditions. First they brought out the elephants and they had us put out our hands in the form of like a cup behind us and the elephants put their trunk in our hands and we lead them down a path to a little clearing in a forest. It was awesome. Then they showed us some 'tricks' but they called it "promoting the elephant’s natural behavior." They had commands for the elephants to kneel, lay down, make noise, and raise their trunks. All of the behaviors that they did were behaviors that they do naturally for some reason or another.

Then, they pulled each of us up individually and let us touch the elephants, their trunks, their ears (the back side of their ears is extremely smooth, actually the only smooth part on their body), their bellies, legs, and tails. It was very cool. After that we led them to a big field which had an incredible view of the mountains and we rode the elephants around for over 10 minutes. They had the elephants lie down and someone helped me climb up and then I just rode the elephant around bareback for a while (with a trainer). We had a line of a bunch of elephants with me and one of my friends each riding one and while they were all walking in a single file line, they actually did hold the one in front's tail with their trunk! It was very cool!

Next, it was time for dinner. I had read about a beach called Kerboomstrand that is relatively untouched and a pretty well kept secret. It was supposed to have a great restaurant on it, so we decided to go check it out. It was probably the most incredible beach I have ever seen. It was pretty small but it was gorgeous and there was no one on it but us. We stayed there for dinner watched probably one of the most beautiful sunset’s I have ever seen in my life. The dinner was awesome. We had 3 appetizers, 5 entrees, 4 bottles of wine, and 2 beers (there were 5 of us) and it came out to about $120 US!! What a great deal!

After dinner we drove to our next destination, Tsitsikamma National Park. We stayed at a sweet hostel inside of elevated tents each with a full mattress. I stayed with Dave (just a friend) and Jaime, Tim, and Aimee stayed together in the other one. We were a little tipsy to say the least and Dave and I took both of the flashlights to our tent so the others got locked in their tent in total darkness and couldn’t figure out how to get out until the next morning! (Basically they were too out of it to find the zipper door in the tent and were trying to get out the window) To say the least, it made for some pretty hysterical circumstances and some ridiculous cries for help in the middle of the night. very entertaining.

The next day we did a zip line tour through a forest canopy. There were 8 ziplines, the longest being 250 meters. And we ziplined over 4 (yes 4!!!) waterfalls. It was breathtaking. We were in full harnesses with all of our own gear. The water was this weird brown/amber color because the indigenous plants have the same chemical in them that makes tea brown and it leaches into the water making it a really crazy color.
After the zipline tour we rode quads around the property for a little while and then headed to one of the garden routes best kept secrets, Cape St.Francis. All I can say is, WOW! It was Beautiful. It was a huge beach and there were only TWO other people on it (a couple walking their dog). We stayed there for lunch before going to our final destination, Jeffery's Bay.

Jeffrey's Bay is one of the best surfing spots in the world. It was really nice, and our hostel was on a hill above the beach so we had an incredible view and we literally just walked down some stairs and were on a beach. That night we hung out on the beach with some English people who we had actually met at our first hostel and randomly crossed paths with again.

Sunday morning we got back into our car, after a morning at the beach, and drove 7 hours home to Cape Town.