HIV/AIDS has continued to be one of the main public health concerns and causes of death in many parts of Africa. Although the continent’s population is merely 15.2% of the world’s population, more than 66% of those infected in the entire world were Africans according to statistics. The United Nations, however, partly blames the high rate of HIV/AID cases on the continent on “cultural practices, including gender inequalities, wife inheritance and other primitive sexual practices.”
Wife inheritance, in particular, has been one of the major cultural practices that has been connected with the spread of the virus in East Africa. Among most communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, young widows are required to be inherited by a brother-in-law to ensure that their sexual needs are met and their children well taken care of after the deaths of their husbands. It is also believed that by engaging in a sexual intercourse with an inheritor, a widow would be able to remove impurities remaining in her after her husband’s death.
Wife inheritance has led to the spread of HIV/AIDs in Africa in that an inheritor is likely to have own family. He would then infect his first wife and the widow he has inherited. Once dead, two other men come forward to inherit the women he has left behind. The two men also die eventually, and their widows inherited. And so, a cycle develops. However, this has done very little to discourage those who still believe in inheritance, with some individuals ready to go to any length including the use of threats to achieve their wishes.
Widows who refuse to be inherited are often threatened with curses and appropriation of all properties they owned with their husbands. For instance, Jemimah Nindo was a very competent high school teacher in one of the leading schools in Kenya and was married to a doctor. One day her husband became very sick but after numerous tests were carried out, nothing was found. Less than two months later he slipped into a coma and died. It was later discovered that he had died of HIV/AIDS. As dictated by traditions, Jemimah was required to be inherited by her husband’s cousin or brother. However she refused, and for that reason, she was chased away and all her properties taken. The same applied to Lilian Achieng a 26-year-old widow and a mother of three. After her husband died of HIV/AIDS she refused to get inherited because she did not want to spread the virus. As a result, she lost all her properties to her in-laws who accused her of disobeying traditions.
But not all the widows can be as firm as Jemimah and Lilian were. Some have been coerced into accepting an inheritor. When 28-year-old Mildred Auma’s husband died of HIV/AIDS, her in-laws asked her to allow one of them to inherit her as traditions dictate. She was given two options, either to accept it and live in the community or reject it and lose all the properties. Mildred chose the former and was therefore inherited by her husband’s brother. As she was HIV positive she infected her new husband who also ended up infecting two other women before dying two years later.
Aside from wife inheritance, other cultural factors have strongly been linked with the spread of HIV/AIDS virus.
Although Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been mentioned, experts are yet to find a direct association between the two. However, they have warned that the cutting of genital tissues with the same surgical instrument without sterilisation could increase the risk for transmission of HIV between girls who undergo FGM.
Polygamy is another cultural practice that has closely been linked with the rise of HIV/AIDS in Africa. In countries like Kenya, polygamy is permitted as long as all those involved consent. However, the practice is òargely carried out in many African communities as part of tribal traditions without much concern from the government. According to African experts, it has been one of the biggest contributors to the spread of the virus because the level of infidelity is higher in polygamy compared to monogamous marriages. Partners in a polygamous marriage are usually unfaithful which means that many of them introduce the virus to their marriages. If one partner is infected he or she ends up infecting all the others.
But despite polygamy being listed as one of the major factors promoting the spread of HIV/AIDS, there is not enough evidence to support this notion because of inconsistent data according to UN. The assumption is further challenged by figures from Ghana which show that the spread of HIV infection was lowest in the North, where 44% of marriages are polygamous.
However not all African cultural practices contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS. According to the World Health Organisation WHO, male circumcision which is practised in some African communities as a sign of initiation, can limit the transmissions of HIV/AIDS from women to men. This because cells under the foreskin of an uncircumcised person are known to be vulnerable to the virus. One study showed that HIV infection rates were much lower among African groups which practised circumcision. However, the procedure has to be conducted by medical professionals under safe conditions.
The UN Commission on HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa is now calling for serious “discussion and action” on cultural issues which many societies find uncomfortable and challenging, but which determine the spread of HIV and undermine the effectiveness of national responses to the epidemic. “We must learn to understand how cultural norms and attitudes increase the risk of infection. It is why we must enforce laws to eliminate violence against women and girls and take action to improve the lives of AIDS orphans,” said UN Secretary-General.
In further remarks, the Secretary-General said that the global community had risen to the occasion in response to the AIDS pandemic in African countries. “We have seen an international movement towards universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support,” he added. Similar optimism was expressed by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, who told reporters that there were some real results in the campaign against HIV/AIDS. According to him so far “Three million people are on antiretroviral therapy, including 2 million in Africa…in 2001 there were less than 200,000 people on anti-retroviral therapy and most of them were living in Brazil because that was the only big country in the developing world that was offering this free to its citizens.”