Africa's men meet challenge of fighting HIV/AIDS
By Mercedes Sayages
13 Jun 2003
Two of the participants in the RAISA/VSO conference in
a moment of relaxation.
Photo by MERCEDES SAYAGES
PRETORIA (AlertNet) - "Iraq does not harbour weapons of
destruction. Africa does, and it is called HIV," says
African comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys. "What's killing us is
not talking about AIDS. Silence kills."
Nodding vigorously among the audience is Believe Dhliwayo, a
Zimbabwean in his early thirties. "I'm HIV positive
parents never talked to me about sex," he said.
"It's high time we
change the aspects of our culture that spread the
Uys performs his hilarious AIDS awareness skits free of charge
schools throughout South Africa. Dhliwayo works at The Centre,
group that provides counselling and support for people with
their families in Zimbabwe's capital Harare.
Noticing that men die earlier than women after diagnosis, The
concluded that men succumbed to opportunistic infections as a
of low self-esteem. "Our male identity says we can deal
problems but we can't deal with HIV infection," Dhliwayo
Both Dhliwayo and Uys are part of a wave of fresh thinking
and AIDS in southern Africa. It moves beyond "men drive
to "how can men be more engaged in containing AIDS than
According to the U.N.'s joint programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS),
national adult HIV prevalence has risen "higher than
possible" in the region: Botswana 38.8 percent, Lesotho
and Zimbabwe 33.7 percent. Namibia follows with 22.5 percent,
21.5 percent, Malawi 15 percent and South Africa 13 percent.
A variety of male-driven efforts were showcased at a
men and AIDS organised in Pretoria, South Africa, in February
Regional AIDS Initiative of Southern Africa of Voluntary
A common thread was the pervasive silence surrounding male
Parents do not talk about sex with their children. Husbands do
talk with their wives. Men generally feel uncomfortable
At the National Association for People Living with HIV/AIDS in
(NAPHAM), nine out of 10 male members felt unable to disclose
HIV status to their wives.
Keeping it secret brought stress, risk of infection through
unprotected sex and inability to change lifestyle. However,
NAPHAM started support groups for couples, 65 pecent of men
their wives. Male membership increased. "The groups
enabled men to
talk," said Napham's Mark Kumbukani Black.
A regional survey by Southern Africa AIDS Information and
Dissemination Service (SAFAIDS) concluded: "Men need
explore and talk about their sexuality in non-threatening
On a balmy summer evening, Regis Mtutu can be found at a beer
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, telling a bunch of
men that masturbation is harmless and manly.
Mtutu is an activist with the Men's Forum Padare/Enkudleni.
seeks to change stereotypes about manhood. Padare members go
men hang out, at bars and sports clubs, and to schools and
churches. "We talk, talk and talk until we feel
In rural settings, they discuss inheritance and traditional
In towns, sugar daddies and domestic violence. Everywhere,
there are alternatives to the dominant macho identity.
Research throughout the region shows that men are socialised
notion of masculinity as sexual prowess, risk-taking behaviour
male dominance and superiority over women.
At the same time, men perceive their privileged space in
under threat from a variety of factors, ranging from rural
Western culture seeping through mass media and growing
"Many men are feeling a bit hopeless, like there's no
place for them
in the world," says Professor Graham Lindegge, of the
Psychology at South Africa's Natal University.
In a study of how masculinity is constructed in schools in
Natal, Lindegger found that the conflict between traditional
contemporary gender roles generates a sense of displacement
futility among boys and men.
The sense of loss undermines men's motivation for safe sex.
point would there be in preserving oneself and others for a
in which one has no place in the future?" Lindegger
Similar findings occurred in a survey of risk-taking behaviour
youths in Soweto, South Africa's largest township, where
of young men are unemployed.
"If you have no job and no future, life becomes cheap,
and sex a
dangerous entertainment fuelled by boredom, alcohol and
said Barbara Fisher, an academic with the University of
HEALERS, CHIEFS AND PRIESTS
From the other end of the social spectrum, a survey among
healers, chiefs and Zionist priests in nine provinces by the
Promotion of Traditional Medicine Association of South Africa
(PROMETRA) found that men felt socially disoriented through
leadership position in the family and community.
"Men have become spectators, irresponsible and
according to social scientist Douglas Kabanda, who led the
To change this, PROMETRA taps into the traditional notion of
being responsible for their families.
Cultural and traditional customs are maintained albeit in
best practice." Male circumcision, wife inheritance,
(decorative scarring) and polygamy can be managed responsibly
people know about HIV infection risks.
"Traditional practices make up male identity; to attack
them is self-
defeating. We need to find viable ways of keeping tradition
getting men involved against AIDS," Kabanda said.
Dry sex, where women put herbs and potions in the vagina to
hot, tight and dry, provokes lesions that make HIV infection
Dry sex is prized by men. A wet vagina is not. The reason,
to Kabanda, is ignorance about the female body. "When we
causes wetness, their eyes open. We discourage dry sex,"
The wall of silence around Africa's ultimate taboo topics --
rape and male-to-male sex -- is crumbling.
Ivan Louw, a 26-year-old businessman, was hijacked, raped and
tortured by three men near Pretoria in 2001. At the hospital
emergency ward, he couldn't tell the nurses he had been raped.
"Rape doesn't happen to a white, Christian, married,
Afrikaaner man, right?" he said.
He refused to accept the stigma, went public with his story
founded Men United, a support group for male rape survivors
THREAT OF IMPRISONMENT
Namibia's President Sam Nujoma has denounced gay men and women
African and threatened them with imprisonment and deportation.
However, ethnographic research in the 19th century documents
between men among the Himba, Herero and Ovambo peoples.
"Politically constructed homophobia has a negative impact
health because it excludes homosexuals from prevention and
campaigns, making them vulnerable to HIV infection," said
anthropologist Robert Lorway.
In field research among black gay and bisexual men in Katutura
township, Lorway found they experienced regular verbal,
sexual forms of assault and discrimination from hospital
police, and army and church officials. Finding barriers in
employment, they turn to commercial sex work.
Because sodomy is a criminal offence in Namibia, condoms
distributed to prisoners, in spite of HIV prevalence of 27-30
in the country's 13 crowded prisons. "It could be seen as
criminal behaviour," explained Pride Simana, an AIDS
the Prisons and Correctional Services.
New is men's involvement in home-based care, although nursing
sick has traditionally been a female preserve.
"If I fall sick, I can only think of women who would help
men," says Believe Dhliwayo. "We need men's support
Out of 520 volunteers with Tovwirane AIDS organisation in 52
in northern Malawi, 40 percent are men. Kara Counselling in
Zambia also has growing numbers of male caregivers.
Chiefs and church leaders help identify possible volunteers
provided with training, bicycles and team support.
After 20 years of rampant spread, AIDS is forcing changes in
behaviour in southern Africa.
"Organisations are taking the bull by the horns and
engaging men with
some success," says RAISA/VSO coordinator Terina