Zimbabwe: Blame, responsibility, impact of criminalisation on women analysed

Edwin J Bernard - October 5, 2008

Excellent opinion piece in the Zimbabwean newspaper, The Herald, which discusses blame and responsibility and the impact of criminalisation of HIV transmission on women.

 

Blame Game Won’t Change a Thing
The Herald (Harare)
Beatrice Tonhodzayi
4 October 2008She is young and very striking. That type of girl that would give most of my male colleagues’ ideas; if she ever looked their way. She is very pretty, what my male colleagues term the “typical African queen.”

However when you look deeply into her eyes, you can tell she is sad.

But what would make such a pretty and young lady sad?

Mutsa (not her real name) is living with HIV. It is not that knowledge however that is responsible for the sadness that surrounds her very being.

It is anger and a sense of betrayal.

Anger and betrayal, that she feels towards her former lover, a medical doctor, who she says infected her with HIV.

When Mutsa got in touch with me about her story, I felt very betrayed on her behalf.

There she was, going out with a medical doctor, someone who has all the knowledge about HIV transmission. This was the first man she had ever been with and he had the nerve to infect her with HIV, I felt.

But then, I began to wonder!

Did he even know that he was HIV positive?

Yes, he may have slept with other women before or besides Mutsa but this does not mean he knew his status and therefore willingly infected his girlfriend.

And why did Mutsa have unprotected sex with him when she did not know his status?

I am a woman; I champion the women’s cause as much as I can because I sincerely believe that life has not been very kind to woman-kind.

However, I am a journalist and must look at both sides of the coin. I must be objective.

There are many women who are living angry lives unnecessarily. They are filled with so much bitterness at the fact that their husbands and partners have infected them with HIV.

This anger in some cases, is so intense that it eats up one’s very passion for life.

They wish these men could just be thrown into jail for committing such heinous crimes.

Is this necessarily fair to the men in question and the women themselves?

A cursory glance shows that most women who are living with HIV blame a man for their status and this is understandable.

It is a fact that most men sleep with several women at the same time. How many women can safely say they have never been played?

Definitely not me!

But if we know we are or have been played, should we not begin to look out for ourselves?

Another interesting truth is that even women, who have had other sexual encounters before marriage, are quick to point a finger to the man when they test positive.

This is despite the fact that some of them would not have tested before entering this relationship.

Ever think for a moment that you could actually have been positive before, sisters?

If the truth be told, there are some men who have also been infected by women. But how many times do you hear people sympathising with a man?

Is this because men do admit to having been around and done that, unlike their female counterparts?

Multiple concurrent partnerships, especially the “small house” syndrome, are very popular in southern Africa and this is a documented fact.

Such partnerships have been identified as a key driver of HIV in the region.

Because men keep the majority of small houses, whenever transmission occurs, a finger is pointed at them and quite rightly so, mostly.

But what does just blaming them achieve if women do not stand up and begin to look out for themselves.

For argument’s sake, let us say the man is responsible, does this mean by pointing a finger, the virus would disappear?

If we could even go on to punish someone for infecting someone, would we solve anything?

Some would argue that it is high time we criminalised HIV transmission but will this prevent the spread of HIV?

Would it make people more sexually responsible?

Justice Edwin Cameron of South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal at the just ended XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico said criminalisation of HIV transmission makes for bad policy direction around the epidemic.

He said laws and prosecutions don’t prevent the spread of HIV but may actually continue to distract us from reaching our goals of ending deaths, stigma, discrimination and suffering.

He also said something else that I like.

“The prevention of HIV is not just a technical challenge for public health. It is a challenge to all humanity to create a world in which behaving is truly feasible, is safe for both sexual partners, and genuinely rewarding.

“When condoms are available, when women have the power to use them, when those with HIV or at risk of it can get testing and treatment, when they are not afraid of stigma, ostracism and discrimination, they are far more likely to be able to act consistently for their own safety and that of others.”

The responsibility lies with all of us surely?

At the International AIDS Conference Regional Feedback Meeting held at the Harare International Conference Centre, Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS) Executive Director, Mrs Lois Chingandu also echoed the same comments.

She said the challenge with sexual matters were that they were mostly a “heat of the moment” thing and therefore clearly ascertaining that someone has an intention of infecting someone would be difficult.

“One could look for a condom in the dark and fail to find it. Both parties would go ahead to have consensual sex. Could we blame someone here?” she asked.

Today my message is simple. I am just appealing to Mutsa and others like her who are failing to move on because of the anger and sense of betrayal they feel that someone infected them to let go of it and live their lives.

She once felt like taking him to court but then, she says, she realised there was really no point for her status would not change.

I am also inviting my readers out there to contribute their thoughts and comments to this issue of blame and criminalising HIV transmission. My e-mail address is beatrice@safaids.org.zw

Please note:

Each of us has the responsibility and right to protect ourselves from HIV infection and re-infection

Failing to manage one’s anger is one way of increasing stress levels

You can still enjoy a full and productive life, even if you are HIV positive

Beatrice Tonhodzayi is a Programme Officer-Media with SAfAIDS