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close this bookAfrican Women and AIDS: Scope, Impact and Response (UNESCO, 1999, 59 p.)
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by Femi Nzegwu
(Doctor in Social Sciences, Counsellor in Gender and Networking, Regional Project on HIV and Development for Sub-Saharan Africa, UNDP)


The concept of gendensed roles in Africa is not new In every sphere of social activity, over the ages, across varying political economies on the continent, Africans have been conscious of ensuring the codification and operationalisation of clearly defined role patterns by sex. This is seen as a means of establishing a complementary social order in which all of society participate, and in which conflict is minimalised There is an acknowledgement of the differences in the range of abilities between the sexes, and the need to ensure that these abilities are appropriated and optimally utilised for the well-being, progress and development of society. This is evident within marriage and child rearing, in the selection of occupations, during periods of social crises, etc.

Just like other dominant features of African contemporary life (the State, Governance, the Economy), the understanding of gender relations has been informed primarily by intellectual and cultural traditions external to the African experience. Today what often characterises the discourse on gender roles in Africa is mis-information and unduly emotion, quite often equating gender roles with women's disempowerment and/or men's oppression of the latter. On the contrary, Africa's historical experience shows that genderised roles did not necessarily place women at a disadvantage in society, socioeconomically or politically. The marginalised position in which many African women find themselves presently, is in contrast to a historical experience and culture that recognised and valued the contributions of women to the development and advancement of their societies in pre-conquest times. The lack of equity and equality which the vast majority of women experience in contemporary Africa is a result of the marginalisation and loss of political power that has since occurred, and the resultant lack of control over decisions that directly impact on their lives, the lives of their families, and their communities as a whole. That the positive components of roles of women and men have become marginalised is a tragedy of Africa in the current age. This inhibits our capacity to understand both the evolution of what presents today as genderised roles as well as develop solutions to problems in which gender disparities are implicated. Nowhere is this problem more clearly demonstrated than with HIV/AIDS. Here, there is a crucial need to understand how gender roles and gender disparities, as they present in present day African society, affect women's and men's capacities to respond effectively to the impact of the epidemic - personally, within families and communities.

The greatest challenge confronting Africa today is that of meeting the basic socioeconomic needs of the people of this continent. Indeed, one of the primary factors which, if achieved, will minimise the spread of HIV/AIDS is economic independence. The capacity to cater for one's economic needs is crucial to any attempts at economic and health security. In contemporary Africa, the pattern of gender disparity is rooted firmly in economic disparity ostensibly supported by "culture". The fact is that the vast majority of Africans have limited, indeed minimal access to utilising the resources of society for their own development. However, given the central role of the African woman in providing for and supporting that essence of African existence - that is, the African family - deprivation for her has far reaching ramifications. Within the scenario of near-universal deprivation which exists across the continent, gender disparities do exist, making deprivation for women even more acutely and more widely felt. Faced with extremely limited options, many young women (and men) who lack the opportunities and means to employment needed to provide for their basic needs and those of their families, increasingly view sex work (including the "sugar-daddy" syndrome) as the most available means of readily generating desperately needed funds. This exposes women to a host of health problems, most notably HIV/AIDS. The process of gender and therefore economic disparity is traceable to early childhood. There is a tendency in African societies to discriminate against girls in the area of education, with regard to both access to education and the scope/variety made available to girls. Consequently, girls do not often benefit from the variety of specialist training and job opportunities for which they may be eligible. A number of contributing factors have been identified. These include:

· Parental and societal attitudes towards the education of children which favour financial investment in boys over girls;

· Early marriage by girls and pregnancy;

· Heavy reliance on girls for domestic duties;

· Gender biases in employment and training; and

· Limited visibility of educated women in influential positions.

Within the home setting, parents and the community need to be supported to play the central role in positive gender socialisation. This should include the promotion of mutual respect in boys and girls, greater understanding of their respective sexuality and the responsibilities as well as the rights which should fundamentally define the onset of sexual activity in both boys and girls. Furthermore, socialisation should promote the growth of non-violent modes of conflict resolution within relationships, and in the greater community as a whole. Out-of school youth strategies are also needed to develop schemes which promote equal access to vocational skills and employment opportunities for boys and girls.


The topic, as described above, invites us to interrogate, assess and understand the position of men and women within the evolution of HIV/AIDS epidemic - both in terms of how it has impacted upon them and how they have responded to it. It further compels us to examine how individuals, families, organisations and communities can assist the creation of an environment that supports the respective role that women and men, individually and collectively, have played and continue to play in ameliorating the impact of the epidemic on their families and communities. This allows us to examine practical and effective means of providing general public but also group-specific education and information on preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Two questions need to be posed? What are the current roles carried out by men and women which appear to facilitate the spread of HIV. Second, in response to the HIV crisis, what aspects of African traditional, seemingly marginalised gender roles can be drawn upon and strengthened to address this crisis. It is clear that any attempts to largely impact upon the debilitating spread of HIV across the continent will need to focus on the relationship between the family - the bedrock of African socioeconomic existence - and the community at large. This focus must centrally involve families in three respects:

· Frank discussion between husbands and wives, children and the supportive extended family about the prevention and/or in the presence of infection, short, medium and long-term emotional and financial support to family member(s).

· Open and informed discussion about those cultural/sociological practices which reinforce gender disparities and place women and by implication men and the society at large at incalculable risk.

· Strengthening the economic capacity of families to make provision for their needs and those of their families, in the immediate and long term.

Women comprise the largest group of those infected and affected by the HIV virus on the African continent. According to UNAIDS there are over 20 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa, over half of whom are women. Additionally, over half the infections take place in young women and men between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Women are disproportionately affected by this epidemic both as those infected by the virus and also as carers of those infected and affected by the virus. Yet, it is clear that attempts to optimise the health status of women and to minimise the spread of HIV/AIDS can only occur within the context of a committed and supportive male population. Without a male population that understands the issues, and thus directly contributes towards the creation of an environment which is supportive of women in their quest for greater control over their lives and destinies, success in limiting the spread of HIV will remain very limited.

Two critical factors require consideration. First, what are those social/cultural elements (which we recognise can vary greatly from one community to another) which put women, in particular at risk of exposure to, and infection by the virus, and what are those elements that strengthen their capacity to effectively protect themselves and their communities from the virus? Secondly, what activities have women and men undertaken, drawing on their respective biological and cultural heritage, to address the impact of the epidemic in their communities? How can these be strengthened?

Issues such as the rights of women within marriage, the complexities of polygynous relationships within the HIV/AIDS context, inheritance laws, sexually exploitative employment and business relationships, etc, immediately come to mind. What indigenous structures exist that address these issues? How can these be drawn upon/strengthened/modified to create a more protective and enabling environment for women? There are political and economic structures created by women and men (albeit less powerful in contemporary times) in many African societies which exist and operate independently of either sex, to ensure the preservation of their own unique interests. These entities have been known to undertake sociopolitical/economic action whenever it is perceived that the well-being of women is potentially threatened. Examples of these range from the more dramatic, ever inspiring "women's war" among Igbo women (eastern Nigeria) in the 1920s, to contemporary structures which oversee the affairs of women in their community, undertaking activities such as the institution of sanctions in cases of wife-beating and other irresponsible/detrimental behaviour by the men in their society, economic and psychological support to bereaved members of their society, initiating town/village meetings to discuss issues of particular importance to women and their children in the society, etc. To what extent have these structures or others which similarly provide support to women been explored as a very real avenue for presenting and discussing the issue of HIV/AIDS?

Women who are often at the forefront of remarkable communal activity know only too well the potentially disastrous impact which an unchecked/unaddressed emergency such as that of the HIV pandemic can have on their lives and that of their children. Women understand that the initiative to take some action to minimise, indeed halt the transmission of HIV by obtaining the full understanding and co-operation of their menfolk lies primarily with them. The extended family is one of Africa's greatest assets. It is predicated upon a mutually reinforcing network of individuals committed to the well-being of their families and communities. Out of these close-knit family systems that characterise local communities, flows a level of mutual support that will be crucial to any attempts at societal reconstruction in Africa. How these existing networks of people are transformed into vehicles of information dissemination and education, is one of the key challenges that faces HIV/AIDS service organisations in Africa today.


It would appear then that the task for government and non-governmental organisations alike is to clearly articulate the needs of women, men and children within the context of HIV. Furthermore, it seems that both government and non-government bodies must tap into an existing indigenous base in order to ensure that any action is firmly rooted in the culture, always evolves locally, and always responds to a very specific and sociocultural identity. It seems that all of society needs to become a powerful advocate for the rights of women, raising, particularly in the wake of HIV, a number of pertinent issues:

· How can governmental and non-governmental organisations, place on the political agenda those issues (not necessarily HIV-related) that clearly violate the most fundamental of women's human rights -whether these women be persons living with HIV/AIDS or not?

· How can these groups become a vehicle, indeed spearhead the move (working in conjunction with other international bodies) to introduce into popular debate (e.g. African traditional socio-economic, political and legal structures/radio/TV/print media, women's and men's groups, the school system, etc.) the need to amend/revoke those situations or laws (whether western or African) which, singly and collectively, contribute to the creation of a disempowering, indeed debilitating environment for women, and by extension the entire society as a whole? At the same time how can these organisations use their forums to commend and publicise the tireless efforts of women and women's structures/organisations which admirably continue to create change and progress often under very difficult circumstances?

· How can we harness and build on African traditional systems to create an environment which empowers women and men to take greater control of the economic destinies of themselves and their children?

· What strategies can be used to promote the economic empowerment of women and young people to enhance their life opportunities while protecting their reproductive health and rights?

· In many African countries, community-based action is at the front-line of the struggle against HIV/AIDS. These respond to the specific needs of communities and, wherever possible, play an advocacy role for a re-evaluation of structures and systems that impede societal development and therefore facilitate the easy transmission of the disease. How can these community structures and efforts be strengthened?

· The vast majority of African ministries of education do not have in place and/or are not implementing policies which enhance gender equity and equality within and outside the classroom. Schools must be central in de-constructing the process of gender socialisation which restrict the academic/creative freedoms, life and health opportunities for girls and boys. How can ministries of education be made to become more accountable to creating gender-responsive situations in the entire educational system?

· What strategies should be developed to equip boys and girls with accurate information on sexual and reproductive health and life skills which will prevent early sexual activity, foster self esteem, positive gender relationships and shared responsibility?

· African countries currently allocate to the health and education sectors less than 5% of their GNP. How can society advocate for a reallocation of national resources to the health and education sectors to ensure maximum investment in society's human resource development and well-being?

The task of reconstructing society lies with harnessing the collective positive energies which define the socio-political and financial structures that characterise the society in question. These entities are existing channels of communication, wholly indigenous to the people which can serve to educate the vast majority of society on virtually every aspect of contemporary life, including HIV/AIDS and the collective (male and female) effort that must define any attempt to halt the spread of the epidemic.


1. Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe and Femi Nzegwu, Operationalising Afrocentrism, (Reading: International Institute for African Research, 1994).

2. I. Amadiume, African Matriarchal Foundations: The Igbo Case (London: Karnak House, 1987).

3. J. Van Allen, 'Sitting on a Man: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo women Canadian Journal of African Studies, Vol 6, No.2, 1972.

4. Adu Boahen 'Colonialism in Africa: Its impact and significance in Boahen, ed., UNESCO General History of Africa: Vol. VIII (Paris/London: Heinneman Education Books, 1985).

5. UNAIDS Web-site, 97.ppt.