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Aids Kills More Africans Than Middle Passage

by Camilla Dacey-Groth

AIDS diminishes African populations as nothing has since the decline of the international slave trade. According to the June 2000 report of the United Nations AIDS Program (UNAIDS), currently over 23 million Africans are infected with the HIV virus. In Botswana, thirty-five percent of the adult population carries the virus. Sixteen states report infection rates of ten percent or higher. Fourteen million Africans have died of AIDS. By next year, the number of orphaned children whose parents have died of AIDS will reach 13 million. Any country would be strained by losing such a substantial number of its citizens, taking care of millions of orphans, and providing very expensive health care for its population. Africa's mostly poor nations are overburdened.

What is needed are therapeutic and preventive medication, and childcare. Condoms and sexual education are also urgently needed. As the examples of Senegal and Uganda demonstrate, a combination of promoting condom use and abstinence significantly slows down the epidemic.

The question of how to stem the tide of infection and death often focuses on the use of condoms. That the Vatican still opposes the use of condoms is inexcusably irresponsible. When millions of people die, dogma should take second place after the preservation of life. But conservative Catholics are not the only ones whose dogmatism makes them blind to reality. Anyone who, in the age of AIDS, spreads the gospel of sexual liberation and derides those who promote abstinence or monogamy as prudish is at least as irresponsible and outdated as the Pope. However great the joy of sex might be, it is hardly worth dying for. 

What is particularly tragic is that many of those who contract the HIV virus via sexual intercourse do not even enjoy sex. Curiously, it is generally assumed that men and women (who are assumed to be heterosexual) share definitions of sex and pleasure and that they equally enjoy sexual intercourse-in spite of research and experience that contradict this assumption. Sexual abstinence, fidelity, and so-called safe sex, in African countries as in the United States, mean different things to and are experienced differently by women and by men. The spread of AIDS in Africa demonstrates the difference and is closely related to women's sexual victimization in patriarchal societies. In the era of AIDS this victimization is, more and more often, lethal. HIV infection rates are three times higher in women than in men. 

An article in a recent issue of Scientific American provides an informative discussion of how culturally specific sexual practices exacerbate the AIDS epidemic. Because men in some African nations prefer "dry sex," women use cotton swaps or herbal medications to induce vaginal dryness. The lack of lubrication makes intercourse painful for women. It also leads to vaginal inflammation, increases the risk of condom breakage and thus increases the risk of HIV infection. 

Interfering with the cultural practices of a formerly colonized nation smacks of cultural imperialism. In this instance, however, the Western feminist agenda coincides with measures that need to be taken to control the spread of AIDS. This example shows that the availability of condoms alone does not combat the spread of the deadly disease. Condom distribution has to be accompanied by education on HIV, condom usage, promiscuity, abstinence, and other related health and sexual matters.

The main obstacle to effectively preventing the disease and to treating it is the lack of funds. A survey of 1,200 Americans recently suggested that over sixty percent of the American population supports the use of US federal funds to help fight AIDS in Africa. It is not clear, however, if the public realizes how expensive adequate prevention programs are. Sandra Thurman, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, estimates that establishing such programs would cost approximately $1.6 billion. Who's going to pay?

The Reverend Eugene F. Rivers III of Boston argues that African-American leaders and intellectuals should focus their intellectual, political, and financial power on fighting AIDS in the Motherland. He accuses those black Americans of hypocrisy who celebrate Kwanza or make academic arguments for the Afrocentric interpretation of history while disregarding what is happening to Africans today. Mourning what happened to Africans at the hands of slave traders and missionaries is not enough. What's done is done and no one can bring back the dead. Rivers reminds us that the millions of African men, women, and children who are infected with HIV but have not yet become ill and the millions who have not been infected can be saved from the fate of a painful and early death. 

So, you'd better get involved. Find out more about AIDS in Africa. Support Congresswoman Barbara C. Lee's (D-California) anti-AIDS "Marshall-Plan" or send a check to Africare, an African-American organization that organizes relief programs in Africa. Contact: Africare, Africare House, 440 R Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001. (202) 462-3614. Fax: (202) 387-1034. http://www.africare.org#.

Camilla Dacey-Groth was a student intern with African Americans for Humanism this summer. She is a doctoral student at Bowling Green State University, majoring in American Culture Studies.

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