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BREAK THE SILENCE, GET PAST THE NOISE...

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Headnote

In Sub-Saharan Africa women comprise 60% of the adults who are HIV-positive. What puts women so much at risk of HIV infection? Poverty, unemployment and limited access to resources all play an important role, but according to a 2006 study on Culture, Women's Rights, and HIV/AIDS in Namibia, women are especially at risk due to the cultural beliefs and practices that support male dominance.

The study, commissioned by the Southern Africa HIV/AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SafAIDS), was conducted by Diane Ashton, Cynthy Haihambo, Laura Jennerand John Mushaandja of the Universty of Namibia, and recently launched in Windhoek. The researchers examined women's status in two areas of Namibia: Omusati Region in the north and Karas Region in the south. They gathered data through focus group discussions and interviews with traditional leaders, community members, people living with HIV and Aids as well as with activists. Discussions with both cultural groups (Owambo in the north and Nama in the south) revealed that in order to combat the spread of HIV and Aids, Namibia must address the cultural practices that violate women's rights.

THE CULTURE OF MALE DOMINANCE

According to the study, even though the constitution says women are equal to men, most Namibians do not believe it. Many cultural practices and beliefs reinforce patriarchy (male dominance) and limit women's ability to control their lives and their health, for example, notions surrounding marriage and divorce. Women who are not married, or have pre-marital children, are given derogatory names such as oshikumbu. Their homes are belittled and they are seen as somehow inadequate. Women are thus taught that a life without a husband is shameful. Divorced women, too, are viewed as failures or prostitutes. Therefore, women often remain in bad or abusive marriages to avoid the stigma associated with being a divorcee.

Marriage and motherhood...