Tanzanian Villages Ban ‘Risky’ Traditions to Curb the Spread of HIV
"Hundreds" of Tanzanian villages have begun prohibiting a "wide variety" of traditional social and sexual practices that served as "breeding ground[s]" for HIV, the Wall Street Journal reports in a front-page article. New laws were largely spurred by the Tanzania Netherlands Support Program on AIDS, an "innovative" Dutch-funded research project. The joint effort between the Netherlands and Tanzania started in 1990 and focused on charting the spread of HIV in Magu District, where health care services are particularly poor and few can afford medical care. Researchers from both Tanzania and Europe asked villagers to "draw maps identifying the most likely places for HIV transmission." Men charted the local bar, guest house and dance club, and women added the school, church, the well and the forest -- "suggesting the prevalence of rape in isolated areas and sexual abuse of schoolgirls by teachers." When the maps were completed, "unprecedented" discussions on sexual practices and AIDS took place, which yielded proposals for laws that went to the village council for "consensus approval." The Journal reports that village leaders used the maps "to create legislation aimed at nothing less than a grass-roots transformation of their culture."
The Journal describes a few of the laws enforced in Magu District villages. Leaders in Mwalinha have banned nocturnal visits to abandoned huts, dancing after dark, and serving alcohol to women after 6 p.m. Itumbili village has banned a harvest rite called chagulaga, meaning "choose," in which unmarried adolescent girls would run into the bush, and young men would chase after them. The girls would then choose a partner for the night in what was "a socially acceptable form of casual sex." Itumbili schools post the rule, "Love-making is absolutely prohibited for boys and girls during the school year." Posting such signs was a "once-unspoken taboo," the Journal reports. Among the polygamous Sukuma, a woman who was widowed traditionally married her brother-in-law, as well as gave up her property. However, the village realized that if a woman's husband died of AIDS, the widow may put the brother-in-law and his wives at risk. A 1998 national law now allows widows to keep their property, and "very few" women are marrying their brothers-in-law. Mwamabanza village "has even gone so far as to help teenagers reprimand their parents," something that "never would have happened" 10 years ago, the Journal reports. Saida Mgalla, the Dutch-funded programs's specialist on youth programs, said, "In Africa, you can't just tell your mother what to do."
Magu Becomes a 'Mecca'
With the implementation of the new program, Magu has become "a Mecca for health professionals," with more than 200 AIDS experts from all over the world visiting the area in recent months. Nearby districts are also attempting to replicate Magu's program. At this point, it is "not clear" whether Magu's new rules have reduced the HIV infection rate, which stands at 12% among blood donors at the Magu District Hospital. Early evidence is "encouraging" -- a survey by the Dutch group found that 38% of Magu district residents "see safer behavior in their villages." And teachers report a decline in pregnancies among school girls, indicating that youths are engaging in sex less frequently and are using more condoms. But some question whether Magu's program can be successfully duplicated in other districts, "particularly in urban areas where people don't know each other well and may be less susceptible to peer pressure." AIDS experts are concerned that overhauling "a scattered system of social codes" can be "enormously labor-intensive and time-consuming" (Phillips, Wall Street Journal, 1/12).