By Charles Tjatindi
Despite efforts by various NGOs to mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS, stigma and discrimination against those infected with the HIV virus continues.
This scenario appears to be fuelled by a combination of factors ranging from low knowledge on aspects of HIV/AIDS, to blatant ignorance. A village-level Participatory Poverty Assessment in the Erongo Region revealed that as HIV/AIDS continues to impact on the livelihoods of those infected and affected, stigma and discrimination takes centre stage.
The assessment, which was conducted between October 2005 and February 2006, analyzed various dimensions of poverty and provided an understanding of how poverty is perceived by the respective communities as they share their most pressing problems and the solutions they find.
The profile also highlights the perceptions of grassroots communities on amongst others, gender and leadership; decentralization; governance and HIV/AIDS. For this reason, the assessment profiled a number of rural communities to gauge their views and beliefs on a myriad of topics, including their perceptions on HIV/AIDS.
According to the assessments, most people in rural settings believe that HIV/AIDS has been brought to their villages by people working in major towns in the region, which contributes to the high level of stigma encountered in rural areas.
Some prefer to ‘close their eyes’ to the harsh reality of HIV/AIDS prevalence, while others simply prefer to keep their HIV/AIDS status unknown, the profile states. In some communities, participants give the impression that it is better not to get tested, but live in the dark and pretend HIV/AIDS does not affect them or their family.
Where stigmatization is widespread, the assessment found, some react by making wholehearted attempts at spreading HIV/AIDS to other community members, apparently to make it impossible to pinpoint the ‘source’ of the disease. The statement, “I will not go down alone”, tragically describes some people’s attitudes.
The profile notes that while stigma and discrimination continue, the impact of the pandemic on communities in rural areas has reached dizzy heights. As participants in the assessment pointed out, it is mainly the breadwinner in the family that tends to become infected with HIV, thus leaving a big void in the income of the family.
In rural areas, there are still many misconceptions regarding HIV/AIDS, and although all participants explain that they know the importance of using condoms and the ‘ABC’ (Abstain, Be faithful and use a Condom), the research team found that this is what they have been told in awareness meetings, and is the ‘politically correct’ thing to say.
They attribute this opinion to the fact that participants’ sexual behaviour has not changed to be on par with their increased knowledge on HIV/AIDS. Beliefs that there are traditional medicines that can cure HIV/AIDS are still prevalent in some sections within rural communities’ settings, according to the assessments.
“Community members’ presentation of how to be protected from HIV/AIDS can be compared with a child repeating homework in class – the child remembers what was written in the school book, but does not necessarily have a good understanding of the content of the homework, as he or she merely recites,” states the assessments report.
In all assessment sites, people perceived unfaithful partners to be the main reason behind the spread of HIV/AIDS, with both men and women considered culprits. Alcohol abuse is considered to be a major factor contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
While most participants said they knew the importance of using a condom, they noted that they forget to use one when they are drunk.
Contrary to what many believe, soft forms of prostitution – where a man offers to take care of the woman in exchange for sexual favours – is said to be rife in rural areas. In such instances, women participants noted that men are willing to pay considerably more for sex without condoms, and women often agree to it because the additional income is tempting.
The assessments were primarily carried out in three rural communities of Armstraat, Ozongaka and Kuri !Gaob.
Armstraat is in the lower Kuiseb catchment area in Walvis Bay Rural Constituency in the south western part of the Erongo Region, and home to the Topnaar people. Ozongaka is an unproclaimed rural settlement located in the Daures Constituency – far north in the Erongo Region. The settlement is 55 km north of Omatjete, and 70 km north of Omaruru. Kuri !Gaob is a resettlement farm situated 16 km southwest of Otjimbingwe in the Karibib Constituency East in the Erongo Region.