Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings and behaviors that a given society associates with a person’s biological sex. When a person’s behavior is compatible with cultural expectations, it’s referred to as ‘gender normative’, but when one’s behavior is incompatible with these expectations, it is therefore known as gender non-conformity.
Culture therefore has the power to shape people’s opinions and actions towards something, and this may happen whether we’re aware of it or not. The way people react to a particular subject is either way influenced by what is considered acceptable in their society. Their reaction conforms to and reinforces their cultural beliefs.
In the fight against HIV/AIDS, culture remains one of the chief driving tools in the spread of the epidemic. It’s undeniably one the bottlenecks that continue to barricade the eradication of HIV in Africa.
Culturally, men are regarded as the head of the family and their decisions usually override that of their female counterparts. African cultures in particular give a lot of unfettered power to men who in turn can sometimes act irresponsibly, manipulate women, young girls and most of all don’t believe in being agents of change in the eradication of HIV/AIDS, because male chauvinism is still rife.
People in African societies don’t talk openly aboutsex because the subject is considered as a taboo. It’s that silence which stops people from examining and changing attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that can spread HIV infection and leads to AIDS. Various attitudes and beliefs inherited from traditional cultures contribute to the perpetual scourge of HIV.
Certain African customs and taboos acts as a barometer as to whensexual relations between husband and wife are allowed and when they are forbidden - for example after the birth of a child, during menstruation or when someone has died in the village .
It is however saddening that these customs and taboos affect men and women unequally.
Research shows that women don’t usually expect to have sexual relations with their husbands at forbidden times, yet many men do expect or are allowed to by the same culture which forbid women to have girlfriends and seek sexual relations outside marriage during the forbidden times. This is not safe in the age of HIV/AIDS.
Statistics also show that approximately 65% of people infected with HIV worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa, where the virus disproportionally affects women and girls.
If communities’ acceptance of norms of masculinity and man’s use of power over women are not challenged, this will further perpetuate and promote the power inequality between genders which is a driving factor behind sexual exploitation of women and girls and will also continue to be on the epicenter of HIV infections.
All these cultural and social factors that are fueling the HIV epidemic can only be averted if African governments come up with a more concerted and unified national and regional response that tackles the cultural practicesthat are fueling HIV, so as to bring the epidemic under control.