Voodoo rituals have long been inaccessible to anyone except disciples and priests. Even though certain practices like scarification carry a high risk of HIV infection, outsiders to the voodoo community have largely been unable to penetrate the secrecy that health officials say can be deadly to its followers.
More than half of Benin’s 7.5 million population identifies itself as practitioners of voodoo, recognised as an official religion in 1996 according to the government.
“We are talking about a high risk group that carries out unsafe practices,” said Paul Boya, a Ministry of Health director of regulations. “There is scarification [skin cuts], female cutting and male circumcision. We know several people are using the same instruments.”
Boya added another voodoo rite that leaves followers open to HIV infection is when a follower comes into contact with blood during public ceremonies, either through touch or drinking it.
Benin’s national HIV infection rate is two percent as of 2007, but in high-risk groups like sex workers for which the government has data, the rate goes up to 25 percent, according to the government’s National HIV and AIDS Control Programme (PNLS).
But health officials are walled off from working with voodoo leaders said ministerial director Boya. “It is closed-off autocratic world, which makes any type of [health awareness] collaboration difficult. These are followers who keep what happens during initiation to themselves. Even if we manage to penetrate this world, who knows what they do after initiation?”
But voodoo priest and president of local non-profit Recades, Dah Alligbonon Akpochihala disagrees. “It is true that not just anybody can access our convents. Non-profits should go through the traditional voodoo leaders. But unfortunately they do not approach us frequently and only come through for the occasional special training.”
Akpochihala said these efforts are not adequate to teach about HIV in the convents; he added outreach efforts should be better funded and organised through the state’s national HIV and AIDS control programme.
The World Bank funded condom distribution and HIV education training for voodoo priests from 2002 until 2006. Some 8000 condoms were distributed according to the project reports.
The government’s HIV and AIDS control programme has only had limited contact with voodoo leaders said its spokeswoman Marie Constance Mélomè. “The situation is delicate and there are constraints in trying to break into such a secretive society.”
She said 20 priests attended a training the programme organised in November 2008 to discuss HIV prevention, less than organisers had expected.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions