Source: New Era
Despite the high level of knowledge about modes of HIV transmission and prevention, many Namibian women lack control over their own sexuality.
Hence, Namibia is experiencing a feminisation of HIV/AIDS as women account for three out of every four new infections.
According to a study by Lucy Edwards, in the book “Tearing Us Apart” Inequalities in Southern Africa and edited by Herbert Jauch and Deprose Muchena, overall female mortality rates are up and have doubled since 2000 compared to 65 percent increase in adult male mortality during the same period. The study suggests that economic dependence, sexual violence and patriarchal sexual culture diminish their ability to express own sexual preferences and desires.
“This includes the right to say no to sex, to decide when they want sex and with who they want sex, the size of sexual networks they are part of and the right to insist on protected sex,” reads the study.
A groundbreaking research done in the Caprivi region in 2007 lifts the veil of secrecy around sexual abuse that occurs under the rubric of “African culture” and highlights a number of intersections between HIV/AIDS and patriarchal sexual cultures.
However, the practices are not restricted to the Caprivi Region and could also be found in several southern African countries.
In the Caprivi region, there are two practices related to female initiation, Sikenge and Muleka. Sikenge is an initiation ritual that begins with the onset of menstruation. The girl-child is taught that silence and obedience is a natural part of womanhood.
She is prepared for her sexual and reproductive role and how to give pleasure to her future husband. Through verbal abuse, beatings and scarring, she is “tamed.”
Various herbs are then rubbed into wounds to make the girl sexually powerful, so that she could keep her man.
Hence, Sikenge provides multiple opportunities for HIV infection to occur through beatings, whipping and the mutilation of the labia.
Muleka is the actual initiation into sex. This initiation is an incestuous sexual encounter where the grandfather, uncle or sometimes brother has sex with the teenage girl with the full consent of the grandmother. This is referred to as “sexual testing.” The act is then convoluted as fantasy for the girl who is later told that she only “dreamt” it.
The practice is a violation of the Namibian law and amounts to statutory rape but is enforced by the cultural norms that are at odds with various conventions that protect children’s rights. The early sexual introduction provides opportunities for unwanted pregnancy as well as sexually transmitted infections (STI) and HIV transmission.
Another sexual practice is widow cleansing or Kahoma, whereby there is a belief that a widow who has recently lost her husband should be cleansed through sexual intercourse with a man. Once again, the ritual provides an opportunity for HIV transmission, as the widow’s husband could have died of AIDS or the man who “cleanses” her could be HIV positive.
Women are further exposed to dry sex, which is tightening the vagina through the insertion of herbs and herbal powder to rid the vagina of fluids. The reason, vaginal fluids are often regarded as unclean.
The dry vagina is then forcefully penetrated, causing ruptures and lesions, which increase the possibility of HIV transmission.
Wife lending is another cultural practice which women are exposed to, especially in the certain cultures such as the Ovaherero and Ovahimba tribes.
The practice of Okujepisa or Oupanga makes it socially acceptable for a husband to lend his wife to a male friend or person of high social status to strengthen the male friendship.
The reverse is also accepted when a wife invites her husband to sleep with her female guest. Violence against women is also another practice through which Namibian women are exposed to HIV. The crime is rife all over the country, where sexual violence like rape diminishes women’s control over their sexuality and places them at extreme risks of HIV infection. The 2006/7 Demographic and Health Survey found that 35 percent of women and 41 percent of men agreed that under certain circumstances, a man has the right to beat his wife.
These are but just some of the cultural practices that some women, especially in rural areas are still exposed to, hence the high infection rate among women compared to men.