Gender and HIV/AIDS
Lecturers in theology are all soldiers in the war against HIV/AIDS. Soldiers are trained to understand the techniques of the enemy and how the enemy operates. They must know the enemy’s strategies – how it camouflages itself, how it strikes, how strong it is. They are concerned to know how they can protect themselves and their people from the enemy, defeat the enemy, or negotiate co-existence (that is, make peace). They know they cannot afford to be ignorant about their enemy, for ignorance can be deadly.
In this war against HIV/AIDS, we in the sub-Saharan African continent with 28.5 million of the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS1 cannot afford to be ignorant about how our enemy creeps up on us and the ladders it uses to climb in. One of the major issues in the fight against HIV/AIDS is gender. If we are to succeed in finding a way to reduce and eradicate HIV/AIDS in our continent, we must fully understand what gender is, for research indicates that “gender inequalities are a major driving force behind the AIDS epidemic”.2 HIV/AIDS research holds that “gender-based inequalities overlap with other social, cultural, economic and political inequalities – and affect women and men of all ages”. A great deal of work has been done on gender inequalities in many countries in the past forty years. Yet much more remains to be done, as the HIV /AIDS epidemic shows.
Thus, all of us – the sons and daughters of Africa – in our various positions have to take our place in the battle against HIV/AIDS. We need to understand fully its causes, what makes it spread fast and how we can stop it in its tracks.
Some of us remember the struggle for political liberation. Indeed, only yesterday we were fighting for our liberation from colonialism. The songs of the struggle still ring in our ears. It was only yesterday that the child of liberation was delivered in our maternity ward. Only yesterday did we leave the delivery room, smiling, with a newborn baby: a free and independent Africa. It is still a newborn child we have been breast-feeding. We have been trying to help this child to crawl and stand up on its own – trying to help our new-born Africa take its first steps and walk alone. And just as we began to smile, watching this child lift its foot to take its first step as an independent being... bang! Another oppressor struck Africa: HIV/AIDS!
We are back in the battlefield. I sometimes wish the enemy were just over there, so we could pick up our guns, get into position and start firing. But our worst enemy is among us. It is everywhere – between men and women, boys and girls, husbands and wives. It is in the beds of our intimacy – in the best moments of our lives. When we kiss and make love, the enemy is there. It is now in our veins, in our blood, in our cells, in our fluids, in our minds. HIV/AIDS makes love drag us to death.
We are back in the battlefield, fighting for our liberation again. This is a sobering, a critical moment. But put your guns down. Shall we shoot at ourselves? This is the challenge of living in the age of HIV/AIDS: we have to shoot at ourselves to win this battle. We have to look closer to home, at ourselves, and question our relationships. Gender – what is gender, how do religion and culture construct and sustain gender differences? Why is gender a major factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS and what can we as theologians do to fight those factors that promote HIV/AIDS? Can we shoot?
As African theological and biblical scholars, missiologists, ethicists and instructors who are involved in training church ministers or community leaders – people who will graduate and go back to serve in the real lives of communities and families who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS – we all know that the church and its workers are the very people who end up with the AIDS patients and their families in the toughest moments of their struggle. We cannot glamorize the task at hand – it is a complicated struggle. It requires all of us to ask ourselves questions, to admit that we are part of the problem, and to change some of the aspects of our lives which are dearest to us. It requires us to question the very things we have always taken for granted, to question our frames of reference, our values, our ways of life. We must admit that these need to change and that no one will change them for us – we must change them ourselves! It requires us to give up something in order for us to gain life – in order to save our lives, Africa, our children, indeed, the world.
There is a critical need to meet as theological lecturers and train ourselves
on how to integrate HIV/AIDS issues in our programmes. We are on a journey
towards a liberated Africa, an HIV/AIDS-free Africa. Research indicates
that HIV/AIDS uses gender inequalities, as well as culture and poverty,
to attack individuals, families, children and communities. It is therefore
imperative for all of us to have a full understanding of the answers to
the following questions:
What is gender?
I would also repeat that gender overlaps with “other social, cultural, economic and political” factors. In short, it is a complex issue that works with and through all social departments – it pervades every aspect of our lives. Gender is everything and everywhere. We are, in other words, always socially constructed as men and women in our various cultures, in our politics, governments, schools, churches, villages, cities, work-places, homes, conversations – and in our beds making love.
The way we relate in all these relationships and in all times and all places is “always gendered”, that is, it is always socially constructed. It is always according to the dictates or within the framework of what is socially expected from us as women and men. Think of the way you eat, the way you dress, the perfume you wear, the socks, shoes, your hair-style: are they the same for women and men? Those are the obvious things. I can very well say, “Think of the way you think, the way you feel, the way you taste, the way you see, the way you hear... all that.” If you think it is as natural as water, it is not. It is gendered – it is a product of social construction. Take, for example, how we feel, or do not feel, pain. Men have been constructed to take it “like a man”, that is, you never cry unless your heart is going to break. So men are socially constructed not to express their feelings of fear and pain. They are to be fearless and brave. They are not to show emotion. Women, on the other hand, are socially constructed to cry, to express their feelings, to be timid and fearful and, often, they are not supposed even to think. When they do think, what they think is supposed to be senseless. So what is so natural about crying when you feel pain, or not crying?
I am touching on all this to highlight that gender is a complex and complicated issue and that none of us escapes it. We are gendered human beings, all the time, everywhere. Gender pervades all aspects of our lives and of our human senses. In fact, we often think it is divine, hence unchangeable. Here is the strength and difficulty of dealing with gender issues. Many people think gender is natural or biological. It is not. It is a social product. Hence members of the society can reconstruct it, if and when we find it wanting. For example, the people of our era have been brought to realize that gender is “a major driving force behind the AIDS epidemic”.5 This, I insist, is more than enough reason for us to seek to change our current gender constructs.
The problem with gender construction
There is always a distinct difference between women and men’s roles, access to productive resources outside the home and decision-making authority. Typically, men are seen as being responsible for the productive activities outside the home while women are expected to be responsible for reproductive and productive activities within the home... women have less access over control of productive resources than men – resources such as income, land credit, and education.6
In short, gender does not distribute power equally between men and women. Men are constructed as public leaders, thinkers, decision-makers and property-owners. Women are constructed primarily as domestic beings, who belong to the home or in the kitchen. They are mothers, wives, dependent on the property of their husbands, brothers or fathers. Women are constructed to be silent, non-intelligent, emotional, well behaved, non-questioning, obedient, and faithful to one man – husband, boyfriend or live-in partner. And so we think of a good woman as one who takes good care of her home, children, husband, who hardly questions or speaks back to her partner, and who remains faithful to him. A good man is one who is fearless, brave, a property-owner, a public leader and, in some cultures, he may have more than one partner.
At the centre of gender relations is the concept of power and powerlessness. The problem is that gender disempowers half of humanity – women. It is on these grounds that Sally Purvis says, “Women are not subjects in the same way that men are. A woman is a derivative concept that exists only as an object of a man’s attention.”7 This serious discrepancy in the distribution of power is our unmaking in the HIV/AIDS era. It is the fertile soil upon which the virus thrives. Women who have been constructed as powerless cannot insist on safer sex. They can hardly abstain, nor does faithfulness to their partners help. Men, who have been constructed to be fearless, brave and sometimes reckless, think it is manly when they refuse to admit that unprotected sex can lead to HIV/AIDS infection. Working within some cultures’ allowance of extra-marital affairs, many men continue to be unfaithful. In the end, no one wins. We all die: those with power and those without power. So what is the point of keeping such a gender construct? Who gains by it? Its unfair distribution of power is the poison on our plate.
We must not forget, however, that gender interacts with many other factors. It works together with economics, politics and culture, and with social factors such as class, ethnicity, race, age and physical challenge. It varies from one race and ethnic group to another. But a few constants have been identified – access to resources, decision-making and public leadership are not equally distributed between men and women. For example, the English say, “ladies first”, meaning men have to come behind so they can protect the weak women. Many other cultures do not say ladies first – in fact the man walks in front and the woman behind. So the Batswana say Ga dinke dietelelwa ke tse di namagadi, meaning “women must follow men”. In both thinking, ladies first and ladies behind, the man is the brave one while the woman is the one to be protected. Some cultures speak of polyandry and others of polygamy, and a close study has shown that matriarchal cultures are by no means more woman-centred than patriarchal ones.8 In short, gender research reflects that in most cultures the balance of power leans towards the men rather than the women.
Culture and religion: how is gender constructed and maintained?
What is culture? This is a very complex word and we cannot deal with all its aspects. A number of definitions will be central to our analysis. According to Musimbi Kanyoro,
A particular people (nation, tribe, ethnic group) has its own culture, its distinct way of living, loving, eating, playing and worshipping. Culture may refer to the musical and visual arts, modern influences on life, an acquired tradition, or to regulations that bind the life of a community... Culture can be a double-edged sword: it can form community identity and it can also be used to set apart or oppress those whom culture defines as other. Participation in culture is so natural and ubiquitous that most people take culture for granted.9
Culture is “a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, a group or humanity in general”.10 Culture “refers to the material production of a society”,11 which becomes a “central system of practices, meanings and values and which we can properly call dominant and effective”.12
One of the most well-known definitions of culture is the Marxist one, which holds that culture is a product of the ruling class which serves to maintain domination over the powerless. The Marxist perspective regards culture, therefore, as an ideology that is formulated by those in power for their own ends – it does not serve all members of the society. In the Marxist perspective culture is therefore “both materially informed and informing”.13 Expounding on this perspective, Roland Boer holds that in a Marxist framework “culture shares space with religion, the state, intellectual endeavour and so on, which are then set over against economics, the relationship being mediated by social class”.14
In the light of contemporary forms of communication, “culture has undergone yet another transformation in its usage. We now have a seemingly limitless access to activities, attitudes and aesthetic ideals that do not necessarily jibe with the assumptions about taste and sensibilities that are promulgated by the standards of a dominant culture.”15
Let us try to draw the implications of these definitions. We can say that
Let us now turn to the question of how gender intersects with culture. Is gender the sub-set of culture or the other way round? I think it is safe to say that gender is a cultural product. At this point, I would like to show how gender is socially formulated within a culture, from birth to death.
Clothing: A recently acquired custom is that the boy child is dressed in blue. I do not know what blue stands for, but one could say it indicates that the boys must be outside under the blue skies. The girl child is dressed in pink, perhaps representing a flower – something that must be beautiful and attractive. While I am not sure about the meaning of these colours, the point here is that the girl and boy children are marked and socially constructed differently at birth.
Toys: As well as names and clothes, we construct gender through the toys we buy for our children or the games we teach them. In Setswana cultures, the boys make cows while the girls make pots and dolls. We buy cars, airplanes and guns for boys, while for girls we buy coffee sets, beauty sets, or baby dolls and teddy bears.
Role modelling: Children learn their gender roles most powerfully by observing their parents. Soon you find them playing “homes” on their own and you are surprised at how precisely they have learned gender roles.
Childhood: The childhood stage is characterized by culturally educating children through proverbs, story-telling, language and school. For example, when I grew up we learned proverbs and story-telling round the fire. If you go back and check what these say about women and men, you will find that it is a cultural bank that does not distribute power equally between different genders. Here we learn such proverbs as Gandinke di etelelwa ke tse di namagadi (a woman never leads), Monna o wa kgomothwa (a man need not be handsome – just pick any), Mosadi tshwene o jewa maboga (a woman’s labour is harvested by someone else).
We learned many stories. When looking at them now, we realize they taught that a good girl is one who is obedient and cooks a good meal for her husband (like the folk tale about the wife who tamed her snake husband with her good cooking); a girl must care about beauty (Tsananapo), a boy must care about cows/property (Masilo), and must be a brave protector (Delele). Today this may not be reproduced by traditional ways of learning, but it is quite prevalent in TV shows like the soap operas children watch and the magazines they read.
Formal school: This stage transmits similar gender constructs. The contents of school textbooks underline the same cultural gender roles. In pictures you find the mother going to the market to buy vegetables, while the father goes to look after the cattle. Pictures and contents of textbooks reproduce and endorse gender roles prevalent in the general culture. Although these days it is a subject of considerable attention, much still needs to be done.
Teenage and adulthood: In Setswana traditional cultures, boys and girls used to be taken to initiation schools that marked their growth from children to adulthood, where gender roles were culturally taught. Boys were taught what it means to be a man and girls were instructed on what the culture expects from them as women.16
Marriage: This stage is one of those rites of passage where gender roles are underlined and reinforced. In Setswana cultures, the old married women take the new bride and counsel her quite painfully until she cries. Some of the things they say are: Nyalo e a itshokelwa (you must endure marriage, it will be difficult), Ngwanaka, monna ga a botswe kwa a tswang (my child, a man is never asked where he went or slept), Monna phafana oa fapanelwa (a man is a calabash that is passed around). Culture expects and tolerates a man’s unfaithfulness. You must remember that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – so cook for him. If your husband hits you, and you get a black eye, never reveal it; say you bumped against the wall on your way to the toilet in the dark. Here violence is institutionally tolerated! The bridegroom, on the other hand, is told, “Today you are a man. See to it that your wife and children have food and shelter. Make sure they are protected.” In most cases, the new husband is not counselled. It is just assumed he knows what it means to be a husband.
The representation of gender roles during the wedding celebration is also evident in the songs and actions. One of the most dramatic demonstrations of gender roles in a wedding of the Northern Botswana is when the bride enters the home from the church. Guests stand in two rows holding all the domestic utensils and acting out what a wife is expected to do. As she walks in, holding the hand of her husband, some will be pounding or weeding, others will be nursing a baby, some will be sweeping or cooking, some will be carrying a bundle of firewood. All these activities will be demonstrated, against a background of singing, dancing and ululation. Again, in this demonstration of gender roles very little is said about the role of a husband – except that the husband is to expect all these numerous activities from his wife. Some of the latest gendered traditions surrounding marriage are what are called the kitchen party or bridal shower. The fact that it is called a kitchen party speaks volumes on what is expected from the wife. Yes, there is a bachelor’s party and I am sure we have all seen on TV and movies what happens there!
Old age: In old age women and men are still culturally constructed differently. It is considered that a man remains a man (remember Wole Soyinka’s story of The Lion and the Jewel?17). In fact, a man is fully entitled, in some African cultures, to find a young woman to make his blood move again. In other cultures, an elderly wife (post-menopause) must graciously seek a young woman for her husband. The latter cultural belief has become a deadly practice in the HIV/AIDS era. Elderly men seek young girls/virgins in the hope that they can cleanse themselves of HIV/AIDS. Because they have money, they lure poor young girls, infect them and move on. Meanwhile young boys seek these young girls and get infected in turn. This is called transgenerational sex. It encloses all of us in the vicious circle of HIV/AIDS – the young and the old.
These cultural aspects make our dream of bringing up an HIV/AIDS- free generation difficult. The absolute desperation created by HIV/AIDS coupled with the belief in rejuvenation means that even infant girls have been subjected to rape by relatives and their own fathers. Yet children are supposedly the “window of hope” and we should do everything possible to confront these gendered cultural beliefs that have come to serve as the pathway for HIV/AIDS.
How are elderly and old women culturally constructed? If a menopausal woman is held to be unclean for her husband – and if this is particularly a time when cultural belief allows the husband to find another woman – what about the very old women, especially widows and grandmothers? They are often stereotyped as witches, an association of old women with evil which has been quite deadly in some of our African cultures. Old women are sought out during the night and killed. Thankfully, HIV/AIDS, which kills young parents, means that the role of grandmothers will be revalued as they assume parenthood again.
Death: Even the passage from life to death does not escape gender construction. Culture has put in place rituals that reinforce and maintain gender roles surrounding death. In some southern African cultures, when a husband dies a brother inherits the widow and must sleep with her on the night of the burial. In some east African cultures, a widower must find a woman he does not know and sleep with her to dispel death from his body and his family. Once more we have a practice that merely sanctions rape and makes prevention of HIV/AIDS difficult. What does a young man who is supposed to inherit his brother’s wife do, if the elder brother died of HIV/AIDS and has left behind an infected widow? What about a widow who may not be infected, but has to be inherited by an infected member of the family? It goes without saying that such cultural practices were informed by gender constructs that placed property ownership in the hands of men. It was thus better for a widow to be inherited, so she could retain her social security.
In other cultures, a woman may be dispossessed by her husband’s family and become so desperate as to engage in sex work.18 In other cultures, such as Botswana ones, widows undergo quite painful rituals to cleanse them of the blood of their dead husband. In Botswana a widow must wear a black or blue dress for a whole year to mark her status and warn other men to stay away, for any man who has sexual intercourse with a widow before the cleansing ceremony will supposedly fall ill. During this period, therefore, she must not see another man. The widower, however, does not have to wear black mourning dress for the society to know him. It follows that he does not have to abstain, except out of his own good will towards his late wife.
In many cultures, burials of women and men were and still are gender-marked. A man was buried in his kraal, wrapped in a fresh skin of a cow, and well equipped with weapons of war, spears and rods. A woman could be buried in the home, with pots and other cooking utensils. The cultural thinking is that even in the other life/heaven women and men would still be pursuing their socially ascribed roles. In some Batswana cultures, once a woman marries away from her ethnic group, she cannot return to be buried in her home town or village. A married woman stays married – dead or alive.
The depth of gender constructions
Gender roles are also underlined through national laws that do not give equal power to women and men. In Botswana, community of property in marriage, for example, reduces the status of a woman to “a minor”. This means that upon marriage the man is the property-owner and manager of whatever they own and whatever the woman owns or makes. Some constitutions and laws do not allow women to own property or to obtain loans from the bank. In this way, the dependency of a woman is also perpetuated by law.
Further, the social institutions – family, school, church, village, parliament, cabinet – more often than not underline the cultural gender roles by keeping men as leaders and women as subordinates. So how can we expect girls who grew up under the leadership of a father, a male principal, a male village leader, a male pastor, a male member of parliament and male president to believe suddenly in their own capacity to lead or to believe in the leadership of other women? And we have heard and seen it happen in many cases that, when women are given a chance to elect a leader, they choose a man rather than another woman. Similarly, how do we expect a man who has grown up in an all-male social leadership to accept women as leaders? Many of us will know how women who rise to leadership in their own institutions are often stereotyped, rejected and named as cruel iron ladies or queen bees.
All this serves to underline that culture is the central instrument in the social construction of men and women.19 It constructs gender and maintains it through various institutions and stages of life. In this way, gender seems total. To some it appears natural, to others divine. Any suggestions for changing this deeply entrenched system often touch on the very central nerve of our identities and our thinking. It can be devastating. Some people say, “How do you want us to relate?” Some are angry, some are defensive, for if they have to deal with a situation where gender constructs do not share power equally between women and men, they think they may have to lose power.
Many African men label gender activists as “raving feminists” who have been listening too much to Western women. They accuse those who talk of gender as importing a problem that does not exist in Africa. Our women, they tell us, have never been oppressed. They have always been strong and they lead us. Describing the response of African men to the call for gender justice, T.S. Maluleke says,
African men have responded (a) by saying, in various ways, “our women are not like that, so it must be ‘foreign influences’ that are causing them to speak and act in this manner”, and (b) by fleeing from dialogue with women by suggesting that, since they are not women, they will not comment on anything to do with gender... for fear of being accused of meddling.20
Maluleke continues by saying, “the first response is a thin and worn-out excuse, while the other is deception and bigotry of the highest order”.
Men cannot and should not run away from responsibility any more. The slogan for the year 2000 HIV/AIDS campaign was “Men can make a difference!”, and indeed men must assume the responsibility of making that positive difference in both prevention and care. But it is not only men who respond defensively when issues of gender are highlighted. Some women become extremely angry when confronted with their gender powerlessness. They do not want to hear about it. This is understandable. People do not like to face their powerlessness or helplessness, especially if they believe that they cannot change the situation; it is sometimes better to bury your head in the sand. Unfortunately, we cannot afford these excuses any more in this era of HIV/AIDS. Any theologian, lecturer, leader or worker who lives in the human-rights era – who believes in democracy, and wants to contribute positively to the fight against HIV/AIDS, which is turning our dark-peopled continent into a red fire-inflamed continent of death – must not only seek to understand fully how gender is socially and culturally constructed, how it disempowers half of humanity, how it fuels the spread of HIV/AIDS, but also to change gender construction so that it empowers men and women. It is up to the society to be instrumental in change and transformation. The present set-up benefits no one – men or women. And since gender inequalities work together with social, cultural, economic and political inequalities, it pervades all our lives.
Are we prepared to be effective soldiers in this battle? As religion/theological lecturers who train faith leaders, we can and must make a difference. Now more than ever we need to understand fully what gender is and how it can be transformed to empower the people of Africa. We need to reconstruct our relations so that they do not serve as pathways of death, but become life-affirming, resisting poverty, powerlessness and HIV/AIDS.21
Transforming gender through culture
We could divide these windows of hope into three. First, there are things that have always been within our culture – things that, contrary to gender disempowerment, have always insisted on a better and more just world. Second, we can capitalize on a strong base of human-rights culture that authorizes us to insist on the rights of all people regardless of their being black, women, young, poor, or of their beliefs. Lastly, trained individuals are in influential social institutions and they can make a difference.
To begin with the first, what are the cultural resources of our societies that empower both men and women? We need to use them often as a strategy of transformation. More often than not, these traditions are far too few and are overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of gendered relations which, along with beliefs, are carefully safeguarded in most of our leading social institutions. However, we can make it a point to use the theological colleges to encourage these liberating traditions and make them more influential.22
One such example from my Setswana cultures is language. The language is neutral. Modimo, God, is given neither female nor male attributes.23 Moreover, human mediums such as ngaka, sangoma and hosana can be both female and male. The Setswana creation story also speaks of how men and women came out of the cave with their livestock. In the story, we note that there is no hierarchy of creation, nor is there an alienation of property from one gender in favour of the other. Other powerful resources are African myths and folk-tales. The stories that teach children’s moral values tend to feature animal characters. In this way, they are neutral to both genders, and can be used to critique books that constantly feature lead characters as male. The point is that we need to find a space to use these as a counter-culture strategy that eradicates gender injustice and gives us the space to advocate gender justice.
Second, we are extremely fortunate because we live in a human-rights era. For many centuries people were discriminated against on grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, age, class, physical challenge, sexual orientation and gender, because their cultures sanctioned it. Countless people lost their lives, persecuted because they came from ethnic groups that were despised as inferior; because they were black, and hence were denied human rights; because they were born with some physical challenge; they were punished severely at school for writing and eating with the left hand; twins were killed; some were considered worthless due to their class and age. In some parts of the world, many girl babies are aborted due to their gender and class, and young girls are sold into sex work.
All of us know that these things are still happening all around us, in this world and age. Shall we allow millions of people to die now, knowing that “gender inequalities are a major driving force behind the AIDS epidemic”? Or are we, as soldiers, willing to do what it takes to establish gender justice, and deprive HIV/AIDS of its sting? I believe in the commitment of all of us to life, for all life is sacred to God. A major advantage for us today, as compared to the people in ancient times, is that the international community has created a forum and instruments designed to promote human-rights based cultures for all. Hence today we have the human rights charter, the children’s charter, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and recently the United Nations hosted an international conference in Durban, South Africa, focusing on racism and other related discrimination. Most of our governments ratified these declarations and charters, hence giving us a mandate to use them to fight all forms of discrimination and to cultivate values informed by human rights. In addition, the African Union has come up with its own charters. All these are instruments of cultural change, for culture is not stagnant, it is dynamic. It is up to us as theologians to cultivate a gender-sensitive culture that respects the rights of all. Believers have nothing against the notion of human rights, for our faith holds that every human being was created in God’s image and deserves to live a life of dignity.
The last resource I wish to highlight is teachers. No change will occur unless somebody somewhere is willing to take a stand. Gender justice requires committed people who fully understand its dynamics and who are willing to pronounce the situation unjust and call for gender justice. We must begin with teachers. Are theological institutions and programmes gender-sensitive? Or do teachers operate within cultures of gender inequality, hence maintaining the status quo? What about the relations we have in our homes? I expect most of us work within a culture of gender-injustice. But I want to believe that those in positions of responsibility in society, leaders, trainers or church ministers, will learn to give their very best in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Practical exercises: the impact of gender culture on
• In five lines, outline how you can empower yourself and others around you in HIV/AIDS prevention and care. Share your ideas with others.
In five lines, outline how you can reinterpret this story to empower both men and women.
Assignment: In 12-20 pages explore how: “Lamentations and Songs of Songs provide for a framework for a theology of hope and gender equality”.
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