Masculinity fuelling HIV/AIDS pandemic


Masculine superiority, which is common in most societies, is fuelling the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. Around the world, men continue wielding power in sexual relationships, an imbalance that often deprives women of the ability to make decisions relating to their health or status.

In Africa, traditional gender roles often leave women with the sole burden of caring for those suffering from AIDS-related illnesses.

The proportion of men participating in HIV prevention, care and support efforts has typically been lower than that of women. For example, the number of men testing for HIV and those accessing ARV treatment is much lower to that of women.

The fight against HIV and AIDS requires concerted efforts on different fronts with government, civic society and community leaders all doing their parts. But enlisting men in the fight against HIV is imperative to lowering vulnerability to the virus for both sexes.

In a 2006 report on the Global AIDS pandemic, UNIADS claimed that in Sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 9.2 million men aged 15 or older are HIV-positive.

It has been reported that during the early years of the pandemic in the region, more men were infected with HIV than women. Today, the situation has reversed in most countries.

UNAIDS reports that women in Africa are being infected at an earlier age than men and the gap in HIV prevalence between men and women continues to grow.

Today, men tend to be less involved in HIV/AIDS care and support efforts because of gender stereotypes, which often mean that women are expected to be sole caregivers for orphans, or other community members suffering from AIDS-related illnesses.

Around the world, young girls are being forced to leave school in growing numbers to care for sick relatives or help with household chores. Grandmothers are often left with the sad task of raising their orphaned grandchildren.

Some men are of the opinion that they might be ostracised or ridiculed by fellow males if they actively participate in domestic activities, including providing care and support to the sick.

Some even believe that their female partners do not need their help. They say their partners were worried others would accuse them of being lazy, incompetent or even of bewitching their husbands. Others say they simply never learned the skills necessary to care for someone living with HIV/AIDS.

Let’s look at what role male attitudes and behaviours play in HIV transmission. Research has found men’s beliefs about manhood are the strongest predictor of risk-taking behaviour.

These beliefs include the idea that “real” men have uncontrollable sexual needs, multiple and often younger partners, consume too much alcohol, and use violence or intimidation to get what they want.

Expectations that men should be more knowledgeable and experienced than women about sexual matters may also prevent them from seeking information about sexual health problems.

Studies demonstrate the link between these attitudes and behaviours, and women’s increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. 

A 2004 survey of 1 500 South African women found those with violent or controlling partners were at a higher risk of HIV infection.

Traditional gender roles also increase the risk of a man being infected by HIV and passing it on. Driven partly by stereotypes equating an increased number of sexual partners with increased sexual prowess, UNAIDS says that men ‑ regardless of culture ‑ tend to have more sexual partners than women.

Although men might be aware of the dangers posed by HIV, ingrained notions of masculinity will often lead them to put themselves ‑ and their partners ‑ at risk.

For example, the idea that “real” men have only unprotected sex thrives in many African countries.

Stereotypes also put men and their partners at greater risk: some men believe only promiscuous women carry condoms.

Men might also be pressured by their peers to use alcohol or drugs, which often result in lower condom use and riskier, more careless behaviour.

In one South African survey, young men were twice as likely as women to report having sex under the influence of alcohol.

So on the way forward, we need to get away with these traditional beliefs about masculinity and unite in the fight against HIV and AIDS in order to achieve our goal, which is an HIV-free generation.

February 2014
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