I read this article and found it interesting and equally repelling, as such i decided to share with the community.

"Cultural values promoting the spread of HIV and AIDS" a case of the BaTonga practices

By kubatana.net on Monday, November 29, 2004 - 9:13 am: by Spiwe Chikosi November 16, 2004

HIV and AIDS are global problems that have drawn the whole world into action. A snap survey on the way of life of the BaTonga people in Binga, Zimbabwe revealed that there are some ethnic groups that have not yet been engaged in the fight against the epidemic. For the BaTonga people the reason could be that it has been a culturally closed group with its own practices which are uniquely different from other practices in the rest of Zimbabwe. These practices have kept them intact and safe from HIV and AIDS. However, due to the current crises of economic hardships and HIV and AIDS, the same cultural practices, which used to protect them as a group, put them at a disadvantage. The socio-cultural beliefs that used to be a source of strength now appear in some instances to be a vehicle for the spread of HIV and AIDS and abuse of children.

Belief in witchcraft is still rife among the BaTonga and there are sexual practices linked to it. According to an officer from the Ministry of Youth, Gender Development and Employment Creation (MYGDEC), men have to be intimate with their daughters to be exorcised of witchcraft. Because of magic and traditional beliefs in some clans men sleep with their daughters after the first menstrual period. This is done to strengthen their magic powers. The mother facilitates the whole process by reporting the first menstrual period of the child to the father. If the daughter refuses, they claim, the father would use his metaphysical power to make her never conceive in her marriage. Failure by the mother to report the first menstrual period would be detrimental to her happiness in the marriage. The people believe that it is the first menstrual period that is crucial because after the second or third cycle, the magic would not work. In this advent of HIV and AIDS, this practice has serious implications for the children. This would mean that if the father is HIV positive, he would infect his own daughter and wife. Granted that most men are polygamous the men would infect all his daughters and wives. None of them would be spared. The beliefs attached to the rituals subjugate women and children, making them normalise this practice.

The BaTonga men like most African men view women as a weaker species and as source of cheap hard labour. For example, male schoolteachers send girls to fetch water, firewood and cook while the same is not done to boys. Besides the fact that this would be child labour, the critical issue is that these teachers end up sexually abusing the girls. This indicates that the female child is being abused in every sphere of life in the community. The girls face sexual abuse both at home and at school. Due to long distances to schools, girls become sexual prey to male strangers. These circumstances constitute a huge risk of infection with HIV and AIDS to girls. Because the same girls will go on to have sexual relationships with young men of the same age group as they plan to get married, the virus will spread.

Some women in Binga smoke the traditional homemade tobacco in specially made gourds. In the gourds, the people put grain, water and tobacco such that it churns out smoke. They claim that water is used for filtration and reduces the strength of the tobacco. However, allegations are that the drug inside the gourd is not tobacco but marijuana (mbanje). An interview with a Save the Children community facilitator, who is also a Tonga, showed that special women not everybody else smoke the marijuana. This practice has kept the BaTonga women safe from external marriages since in some cultures it is taboo for a woman to smoke cigars, worse still marijuana. In fact, in Zimbabwe, it is a crime. This reduced the risk of them contracting the HIV virus. Although the interviewee refused to disclose the purpose of smoking, it is believed that marijuana smoking by women has sexual intentions. Women have to smoke mbanje so that they would perform tirelessly in bed having spent most of their daytime drunk. The local people insisted that it is not mbanje that the women smoke but home made tobacco. This may be because most people are not willing to disclose the secrets of their cultures. Nevertheless, whatever they smoke seems to have the same effects. The effects of smoking marijuana reduce women’s capacity to resist sexual advances by their male counterparts even if they do not want. It puts women at a high risk of contracting HIV. The conviction of women in these cultural practices entices them to normalise and condone as cultural the abuse of girls in the family.

Cases of young girls being abused by elderly men are rampant. There are allegations that those men would be sleeping with virgin girls as a cure for AIDS. Interestingly, interviews with some local people yielded different revelations. It was reported that because of poverty, the young girls get into sexual relationships with older men for material benefits. These men would give the young girls money and gifts in exchange for sex. In some instances where the girls would refuse the sexual advances this would result in rape.

There is the issue of the local Moringa tree that was discovered to have healing effects for HIV infected people. The plant does not cure AIDS but it is thought that it boosts the immune system and reduces the viral load. In addition, the tree has been used for a healthy relish since time immemorial. This prolonged good health for the HIV positive people. Cases of full-blown AIDS patients were very few till of late due to the influx of people from the urban areas. However, the roots of the Moringa tree, which are used for HIV and AIDS treatment, have peculiar side effects. The roots are said to cause an increase in sex drive. The local people reported that the plant has strong sexual stimulation effects. This may lead to a lesser extent though, the spread of HIV and child sexual abuses.

To combat the problems explained above programmes around life skills for children need to be implemented. Long-term programmes focusing on the BaTonga that deal with attitude change and involves the community from planning to implementation would go a long way in the prevention of spread of HIV as well as women and child abuse. Binga is an area where the people’s socio-cultural practices can be a vehicle for the spread of HIV and AIDS. However, the culture in the area poses stiff challenges to externally driven development work. Human rights based approaches are needed to plan and implement mitigation programmes for HIV and AIDS. If programmes delay and social diffusion continues, there is a high risk of rapid spread of HIV capable of wiping out the community.

*Spiwe Chikosi is an Advocacy Officer with Child Protection Society.