I am often asked why certain African countries see disproportionately higher numbers of HIV/AIDS victims than comparable countries around the world. One of the most important components to fairly and fully answering this question is not typically addressed by mainstream media, surprisingly even on World AIDS Day. With this question and this year’s AIDS Day themes of “universal prevention and human rights” in mind, there is no time like the present to take a closer look at one of the most devastating, yet least talked about, culprits of the spread of AIDS in Africa.
Although rarely discussed outside of the realms of human rights activism and African politics, rape is a major contributor to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Because of widespread social and cultural stigmas surrounding the disease, warring rebel groups commonly use rape to systematically spread AIDS to civilian women and children as a way to completely destroy families and local communities. In addition, some African countries have developed a “culture of rape” after enduring years of military and genocidal rape, or allowing for the rape of young girls, children and infants as a mythical cure for AIDS.
The Spread of AIDS via rape as a weapon of war:
A primary example of the spread of AIDS through rape as a weapon of war can be found in the war-torn country of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC has as many as six rebel militia groups. Within these groups, the soldiers’ rate of HIV/AIDS infection is 60%, which is four times higher than the general population. These rebel groups also have a long history of using rape as a weapon, which was effective genocidal tool for them fifteen years ago in neighboring Rwanda, the country from whence the rebels came in 1996. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the DRC’s HIV/AIDS infection rate is one of the world’s highest at 1.3 million. (Incidentally, although so many Congolese people are forcibly infected, the DRC ranks in the bottom five of African countries who provide access to antiretroviral therapy.)
The Spread of AIDS as a result of a rape culture:
Adding to the prevalence of rape is the widespread mistaken belief, by both soldiers and civilian men, that intercourse with a virgin is a cure for AIDS. South Africa is a striking example of a nation that widely believed in The Virgin Cure. For many years, very young women, children, and even infants were viewed as an HIV/AIDS antidote and were frequently victimized. Those who no longer believe in the Virgin Cure have still seen a lifetime of violence against women and children that largely went unchecked. As a result, rape has developed into a way of life. A 2009 survey by South Africa’s Medical Research Council revealed that 1 in 4 of South African civilian men admitted to raping a woman or young girl. As a result, South Africa leads the world in the number of HIV/AIDS infected individuals with 5.2 million.
When considering AIDS in Africa, the focus is usually placed on disseminating shocking statistics, urging people to use condoms, and asking for donations, but the issue of AIDS in Africa is clearly much more complex. The spread of HIV/AIDS through rape, both as a weapon of war and as a cultural norm, must be explored openly. Missing such a critical component to the HIV/AIDS prevention formula only adds to racial and cultural stereotypes about AIDS amongst Africans. On this World AIDS Day, I encourage all of us to educate ourselves, not only about “HIV/AIDS facts and stats,” but also about the human rights implications of this disease, specifically the AIDS/rape connection. Once armed with this knowledge, you will no doubt be able to think about AIDS in Africa from a new, more informed perspective.
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