Social impact of HIV

What social impact is HIV/AIDS having in Ghana? This is a topic of interest to new NAI researcher Perpetual Crentsil. During the course of her research, she discovered that one region in Ghana has a much lower HIV/AIDS prevalence rate than others. She is aiming to explore the reasons for this. One possible explanation for areas with higher prevalence rates is the matrilineal structure of the communities in question. Women have a stronger role in the matrilineal society and that the wife’s brother is interested in her children as members of the extended family (lineage), and not, as is more usual, the husband’s relatives as in a patrilineal society. Hence, anthropologists usually claim that marital unions tend to be relatively weak in matrilineal societies because recruitment into the lineage group through the mother’s line give women a level of prestige and a leeway in sexual relationships; married or not, her children are important to increase the group.
Islam could be another explanation for less HIV/AIDS. In Muslim communities, a man may marry four women, but, on the other hand, adultery is viewed as a more serious offence than in Christian communities. Thus, social control of community members is stronger.

A third possible explanation is the traditional initiation rites for young women to prepare them for marriage and their role as wives.

– This is a neglected area in research on HIV. When these rites were practised, elderly community members felt they had more control over the young girls, and this is why they want this practice to be revived and even legislated. During the rites, the women are dressed up, given advice and pay tribute to their ancestors. Elderly women take the lead in all of this, and men have no access to the rites. These rites could also be a good opportunity to inform about HIV, remarks Perpetual Crentsil.

The government of Ghana recognised HIV as a national pandemic quite early on, at the beginning of the 1980s, and launched national campaigns. Despite this, by 1990 more than 20,000 people had died of AIDS and 10 years later the number was over 30,000. What went wrong?

– l believe they focused too much on targeting sex workers and truck drivers as potential carriers of the virus. The government’s approach was not developed sufficiently and didn’t take into account the spread of HIV into rural areas, states Perpetual Crentsil.

The prevalence has now dropped to 1.4 per cent from over 3.6 per cent. This is a common figure in the region, unlike in Southern Africa where the situation is much worse. Perpetual Crentsil is not sure if preventive precautions are the reason for the lower rate.
– Religious people prescribe sexual abstinence, but this seldom works in practice. The use of condoms is not so popular either, and not only among men. Many women believe that if they demand the use of a condom, they will be seen as prostitutes. Also, some of them want to fall pregnant and have a man who provides for them and their children, she notes.

Nowadays, anti-retroviral drugs are available in Ghana and HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence but a chronic disease, as in many other countries. However, according to Perpetual Crentsil, this is not universally true. It is still difficult to reach out in rural areas with the drugs, and even where this does happen, a person needs to eat well for the drug to work. Without proper nutrition, the anti-retroviral can’t stop the HIV from turning into AIDS, she cautions.
– Another problem is traditional healers and pastors of spiritual churches who claim they can cure people living with HIV/AIDS. When people believe HIV is caused by witchcraft, of course they also believe that medicine from a hospital will not help them – only the traditional healer can, states Perpetual Crentsil.

Persons infected with HIV are often stigmatised, and in many cases their families have abandoned them. In one case Perpetual Crentsil observed, HIV-patients in a hospital tried to earn money by sewing clothes, but when it became known they had HIV, nobody would buy from them. This means they have to live off charity to survive.

– However, we must remember that people are not only victims, but also active players. Many left their villages for town to seek employment to support their families back home. But when they got sick, nobody wanted to know about them. Even if things are getting better in Ghana, HIV still exists and new infections occur, observes Perpetual Crentsil.

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