MOSSURIL, Mozambique (TrustLaw) – How can you protect yourself from HIV/AIDS in a society which believes you have to have sex to stay healthy, fidelity is an unrealistic dream and condoms are sinful?
There’s no obvious answer to this riddle.
As a result, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies are rife in Mozambique. It has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, with close to 13 percent of adults aged 15 to 49 living with the disease.
Years of safe sex messages, often promoted by foreign non-governmental organisations, have had little impact. Today, more people know how to prevent HIV infection but their behaviour hasn’t changed.
“The messages were contradictory,” Zulmira Rodrigues, a specialist for culture with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said.
Young people have been growing up in a paradoxical environment where strong rural traditions clash with the realities of modern life.
For example, many people say girls are ready for sex and marriage once they start menstruating. But schools and medics call for them to delay sexual activity.
DYING LIKE FLIES
Last year, UNESCO piloted an innovative project in the sleepy fishing town of Mossuril in northern Mozambique putting culture, for the first time, at the heart of efforts to improve sexual and reproductive health.
“The aim is to create dialogue between the formal and traditional systems, identifying gaps in both worlds,” Rodrigues said.
Representatives from schools, clinics and government sat down with religious and cultural leaders, traditional healers and midwives and political leaders to discuss their problems.
They quickly identified HIV/AIDS as a major concern as it is a new disease that traditional herbalists cannot cure.
“People were dying like flies,” Rodrigues said, adding that many people didn’t understand how to prevent sexual diseases, supported early marriage and had multiple, concurrent partners. Muslim leaders condemned condom use as a sin.
NOT HAVING SEX, ARE YOU CRAZY?
“People agreed being faithful is wishful thinking…. Let’s be honest, most people ‘piss outside the pot’.” Rodrigues said.
“They agreed: ‘Not having sex, are you crazy? You get sick not having sex.’ People really think if you don’t have sex, you get physically sick.”
The only remaining option was to start using condoms.
But it was clear that traditional leaders had many misconceptions that needed to be cleared up before they could accept them.
“There are lots of funny ideas about HIV/AIDS,” Rodrigues said.
“Some people think that it is the white people that bring it. Some people think that (HIV/AIDS) is in the condoms so that if you use the condom, you are going to get HIV.”
One, well-educated man was worried that women would develop anaemia if they started using condoms, thinking that women need sperm to prevent anaemia.
Two months after the meeting, Rodrigues returned to Mossuril.
“The sheikhs told us proudly that they were talking about condom use in the mosque,” she said.
“This is so incredible…. We know that the message will be heard. Not everybody will use it. But they are leaders. They are behaviour makers … They are the ones who determine yes or no.”
At the end of this year, UNESCO will evaluate the success of the project, with a view to rolling it out to other parts of the country.