Saturday, April 01, 2006

The AIDS Club Visits

I’m working with a group of high school girls who have formed an AIDS Club at their school. Their patron, Mr. O, teaches religion at the school. Mr. O lost a brother to AIDS a few years ago and got involved with the AIDS Club to help his students get all the information they can about HIV/AIDS, and hopefully spare themselves and their families a similar fate. But he also teaches religion at a Christian-sponsored girls’ school.

So Hillary and I found our presentations being interrupted periodically by Mr. O’s reminders:

“As Christians you say NO to sex.”
“None of my girls here are infected, let me assure you.” How do you know? Have they all been tested? “No but they are all good girls.”
“I don’t want to see any of you putting those condoms into your pockets. You don’t have any reason to use them.”

There was definitely the usual tension among the students – of not wanting to ask every question that came to mind because the teacher was there – but Mr. O insisted on a STRA-TA environment, where everyone is expected to engage in STRAight TAlk and students are encouraged to share openly in exchange for being given honest answers.

I am becoming a fan of all-girls schools because I’ve found that the girls I’ve met who attend all-girls high schools are more confident and outspoken than their counterparts in co-ed schools, and most have a sense that they are as smart as, if not smarter, than boys, and entitled to the same educational opportunities.

Most of the time when I ask students for questions about AIDS I get asked the same things – how long can you live with HIV/AIDS, where did AIDS come from, what do you do if you find out you have HIV?

This crowd had no shortage of probing questions I’d never gotten before.

“Can a pregnant woman have sex?”
“Does lesbianism spread HIV?”
“Can a virgin use a female condom? How about a pregnant woman?”
“Why do women get AIDS more often than men?”

It was interesting insight into what teenage girls think and worry about. Lesbianism? Who knew? In co-ed schools where students feel that they are being watched and judged not only by their teachers and principal, but also by peers of the opposite sex, I rarely sense any willingness from students to reveal their true concerns about AIDS, and by default, sex.

Hillary also opened the discussion about whether women had a say when it came to sex and contraceptives. Half the group said Yes women can always say no to sex or tell their partner to use a condom, while the other half shook their heads No.

“What about a married woman?” he asked.

“No,” they all said. “A married woman can’t tell her husband No.”

Mr. O said, “This is why we want you to know all there is to know about AIDS and sex. So you can choose a good husband who will respect you when you say no or when you want him to use a condom, instead of choosing an idiot.”

Score one for Mr. O. He’s on my team! Even though some of the things he said gave me the shivers (“Keep in mind that if you get HIV, you might cause your parents to divorce. Your father will blame your mother for not educating you about HIV and he’ll leave because it’s the mother’s responsibility to teach girls properly.”), he has an open mind and knows he doesn’t know everything. I’m finding that it’s not enough for me to talk to girls about gender equality and empowerment. It’s nice to have female role models and peers for hatin’-on-men sessions, but for women to gain equality men have to buy into the cause as well. And it’s also nice for girls to see that not all men are rotten, that there are men who support and encourage their growth as individuals and as a collective group, which is why I keep Hillary around when I speak to girls and womens’ groups.

It was also a myth-busting session. Hillary was reading statistics on HIV prevalence by province in Kenya, with Nyanza Province having the highest infection rate by far, due mainly to cultural practices, and a fishing industry that depends on migrant workers. Everyone turned and giggled at Mr. O because he’s from Nyanza.

Quite keenly, I thought, Mr. O said, “You may think it’s just a Luo problem because we Luos are all living in Nyanza, but many of your relatives go to Kisumu to work. Many of your relatives might travel to Kisumu to be tested for HIV because they don’t want to be seen at a VCT near their home. So those numbers could include your people, the Kalenjins, not just those other tribes you normally think of who get AIDS.”

Score two for Mr. O.


Blogger evicious said...

Justina, wanted to share a quote with you...I was reminded of it when I read this post:
"It is no use blaming the men -- we made them what they are -- and now it is up to us to try and make ourselves -- the makers of men -- a little more responsible." ~Nancy Astor
I have met too many men who see women a certain way because their mothers perpetrated that image and value system. Men-bashing, while often deserved, doesn't really accomplish what I think we need to do, which is to have equal expectation of men and women. I think it's great that you bring Hillary around because women need to have better expectatio of men. We need to make good choices too.

3:30 AM  
Anonymous Wamucii said...

I think Nancy is wrong on the we made men what they are part.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Justina said...

Hey Eugenia - Thanks for the quote. I see what it's getting at but I think it's a very Western-oriented insight. I agree with Wamucii that women aren't to blame for the way men are. Mothers perpetrate value systems because their culture teaches them to. In Kenya, family decisions are overwhelmingly made by men, especially things like educating sons over daughters because the culture values boys. Women, especially in rural villages, have very little say in decision-making, and a woman who tries to assert her own opinion often does so with significant consequences. Cultures are to blame, and people - men and women - are responsible for changing cultural values and mores. However, in cultures where men are given most of the power and status, they have the responsibility to take part in that change to equalize gender roles. But in these cultures (including our own in the U.S.) many men see gender development as a female issue. They see it as a threat to their power and status, and by extension, to their manhood. Until men realize that gender equality does not take away their manhood, gender development will always be seen as a woman's fight. And women will never win unless their brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbors and sons are at their side.

12:48 PM  

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