The Bigger Picture blogs
Published 22 June 2011

Local customs and traditions have a major impact on the attitudes towards HIV

and therefore transmission rates, says Sasha Kasthuriarachchi.

There is a complex interaction between poverty and traditional practices such as the payment of bride price, sexual cleansing and 'property grabbing' which creates the perfect environment for HIV/AIDS to spread and for those affected to become even more vulnerable.

The bride price or 'lobola' was originally paid in kind to the wife's family for loss of labour, but these days it is paid in cash by a number of members of the groom's family. These family members are then left expecting something back for their contributions and if the husband dies of AIDS, his family have the right to take all his possessions including his house, thereby leaving the widow and her children in poverty. Often when a husband dies, he leaves behind a sick wife and children who cannot fend for themselves and it is common for these children to eventually be cared for by their grandparents. In this way, whole generations are lost and you end up in a situation where the very old are taking care of the very young.

Certain cultural traditions also perpetuate the spread of HIV and AIDS: sexual cleansing is a common practice that takes place after a man has died. It is believed that the widow needs to be sexually cleansed by a male relative of the deceased in order to free her of the spirit of her late husband so that she can marry again and avoid insanity. Some of the work that SAPEP has done in Mazabuka and Monze has led to a change in these practices where the male relatives now step over the widow to free her of the ancestral spirits instead.

Since my arrival in Zambia to work for PEPAIDS, I have noticed many adverts asking men to volunteer for circumcision. Recent research has shown that the HIV virus thrives in the area under a man's foreskin. Circumcised men are therefore less likely to pass on the virus to their sexual partners. West African culture, with Islamic influence, promotes circumcision for all males and notably, HIV prevalence is much lower in West Africa than it is in East and Southern Africa. However, circumcision is not a part of Tonga culture and therefore risk of infection is higher.

Alcohol and drugs and other myths, misconceptions and ignorance also lead to the spread of the virus: only the other day in an AIDS Action Club meeting, I heard that some non-club members believed that HIV infection should just be left to happen because it was fate and the person deserved it. Others spread rumours that sensitisations about the disease lead to you actually being infected and in some communities the village elders and headmen don't attend meetings about HIV/AIDS because they are not interested, even though the prevalence amongst older men in these communities is higher than amongst the youth.

It will take time to overcome all of the different barriers that lead to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Zambia but over the last few years PEPAIDS and its partners have achieved some major breakthroughs in the communities that we work with, and with luck and perseverance we will continue to make more.


Sasha Kasthuriarachchi is one of the eight 2010 Vodafone Foundation World of Difference International winners. To find out more about this opportunity visit the World of Difference website.

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