Globally, HIV is still the leading cause of death of women of reproductive age and contributes to at least 20 percent of maternal deaths. Every minute, another young woman is infected with HIV, according to UNAIDS.
Latest World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS global estimates indicate that women comprise 50 percent of people living with HIV. In sub-Saharan Africa, women constitute 60 percent of people living with the virus. The proportion of women living with HIV has been increasing in the last 10 years and harmful traditional practices in our societies are partly to blame for the increase.
Some age-old cultural practices continue to hamper efforts to curb the spread the HIV in Africa. Although there is little research evidence that links harmful traditional practices to HIV transmission, some cultural practices have led to HIV infections, especially in rural communities across the African continent.
Traditional practices that may directly influence the spread of HIV include female circumcision, sexual cleansing, widow inheritance, early marriage for girls, polygamy as well as wife sharing with relatives/friends.
It is an open secret that social cultural factors in traditional beliefs and practices in the African society play a major role in spreading HIV among women and girls in society. Many cultures in Africa allow young girls to be married at a very young age and in most cases to polygamous husbands.
For example, South Africa, Rwanda and Swaziland still legally practice polygamy where young girls are married off to much older men who already have several wives, which can increase their vulnerability to HIV.
Although polygamy is not legally recognized in Namibia, social commentators confirm that some cultural ideologies that encourage male domination also fuel the practice of young men having multiple partners.
For instance, researchers say among the Herero, Oshiwambo and Caprivian tribes of Namibia it is acceptable for a man to have many sexual partners. In most cases, young men are encouraged by their peers and even older relatives to experience a wide variety of girls, which in the end leads to new cases of HIV infections.
Another destructive cultural practice in the face of HIV/AIDS is when a woman is forced to marry her deceased sister's husband, or when a widow is forced to marry her deceased husband’s brother or other close relative ‑ again to keep the wealth in the family.
Another practice is the hiring of a man to sleep with another man’s wife in order to have children, which normally happens when the husband is barren. Also among some tribes, it is the norm for friends to share their wives.
Last week, Chief Uziapi Tjavara of Otjikaoko Traditional Authority in Kaokoland, in northern Namibia, was quoted in the media defending the customary practice of wife sharing ‑ a practice referred to in Otjiherero language as 'okujepisa omukazendu'.
“Sharing wives is a unique traditional custom that smothers jealousy among both sexes and strengthens friendship. Hence, I advocate its continuation, together with HIV/AIDS education to minimise infections,” Chief Tjavara said. Among some Herero tribes, when a man visits another – the host instructs his wife to spend the night with his friend, as a token of admiration and to strengthen the friendship between the two.
According the culture, the wife is not expected to protest or refuse because that would be a sign of disrespect to the husband. There is also a practice in Herero culture, where a man can sleep with as many of his cousins as he wants – that is called 'otjiramue'. A married man is also entitled to his cousin - with no questions asked.
Some of these cultural beliefs hamper national efforts of achieving an HIV-free generation; therefore, they need to be abolished in the interest of the public. Unfortunately, culture is an important factor in the lives of millions of Africans, which makes it difficult to sacrifice cultural practices that aid the spread of HIV.
However, there is still hope of realising HIV-free generation targets. Traditional leaders are not only the custodians of culture, but communities look up to them as role models. Therefore, they are in a better position to change the mindsets of their subjects regarding the dangers of HIV/AIDS.
The onus is, therefore, on policymakers to equip traditional leaders with knowledge and essential skills to help redress some of the harmful cultural practices that are fuelling HIV/AIDS.
Eventually, they would assist in promoting positive behaviours by encouraging men, especially those with polygamous tendencies, to protect themselves and their partners when engaging in sex.