HIV/AIDS often has more devastating consequences for Mozambican women than it does for men. When the virus is detected, they are often accused of bringing HIV into the home, and may even be rejected or abandoned by their families.
"Because I had sores all over my body and my hair was falling out, my husband would say that I smelled like raw meat and he wouldn't sleep by my side. He began to get sick and my mother-in-law said that I was the one who infected him, but the only one I was with was my husband," said Sonio Costa [not her real name], from Tete Province in the northeast of the country.
"After our two last children died, he tried to look for another wife," added Costa, who was eventually abandoned by her oldest children as well.
Costa's experience is not unique. Joselia Mbanza, the national coordinator of Kuyakana, a network of HIV-infected women, told IRIN/PlusNews: "There are people who believe that everything bad that happens to women is punishment they deserve ... and men imagine that women are the cause of AIDS."
According to Mbanze, there are many cases of family members expelling infected women. Janana (not her real name), a member of Kuyakana, at first hid the fact she was HIV positive. "I had reason to fear," she recalled. "When I appeared on television, speaking about my HIV status, I was rejected by my community and my children were discriminated against."
Blame and discrimination
Maria Cecilia de Mendonça Pedro, a sociologist, believes that women are blamed for HIV/AIDS and a host of other health issues because of their inferior position in society.
"When the children are born with genetic problems, the mother is blamed; sexually transmitted diseases, too. When the couple lacks children, the woman is blamed and the husband has the right to return her to her parents, without looking into why she couldn't get pregnant," Mendonça said.
The common method of determining the rate of HIV infections by surveying pregnant women who visit antenatal clinics has had the unfortunate consequence of linking women to HIV in the minds of many people. Constant references to this statistic reinforce the perception that AIDS is a women's disease, a UNAIDS study pointed out.
In many families the virus is only discovered when a woman becomes pregnant and tests for HIV during her prenatal consultation. Fearing discrimination and abandonment by their families, many pregnant women either refuse to be tested or, if they test positive, hide the results from their husbands and are unable to take advantage of services to prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.
According to UNAIDS, an estimated 30,000 children are born with HIV annually in Mozambique.
Mozambican anthropologist Cristiano Matsinhe describes in his recent book, Tabula Rasa, how commonly held beliefs perpetuate the blaming of women for HIV infections.
|After our last two children died, he tried to look for another wife.|
Based on interviews he conducted in Tete, Matsinhe attributes the perception of women as "transmitters of HIV/AIDS" to their association with "states of impurity, danger and sickness".
He writes that menstruating women are considered particularly impure, and able to transmit sicknesses to men. "Under this logic, men are considered victims of women ... who consciously or unconsciously are disposed to spreading evil." Such beliefs have become even more pervasive since the arrival of HIV and AIDS, Matsinhe noted.
But according to Kuyakana's Mabanza, traditional beliefs about the sources of illness are not confined to men, which was demonstrated when Kuyakana attempted to assist a woman who had lost her husband to an AIDS-related illness in Maciene, in the southern province of Gaza.
She believed his death had been caused by 'mudjiwa', a sickness believed to be caused by spirits. After her husband's funeral, she submitted to 'kutchinga', a ritual that consisted of having sexual relations with one of her late husband's brothers.
Another woman, who was pregnant and HIV positive, and therefore eligible to receive antiretroviral treatment, had not attempted to obtain it because she believed she suffered from "a disease that lasts a century - a woman's disease", which was untreatable.
Kuyakana is training community and government leaders, particularly in rural communities, to counter such beliefs and persuade communities to accept those living with HIV.