Aids message hits brickwall

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MASERU — Bora, a strong, athletic taxi driver in his late 30s, is not shy to talk about his sexual exploits.

He says with a straight face that he has lost count of the number of women he has bedded.

He says he is aware that he is putting himself at risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

But he says despite the danger he is not ready yet to give up on his “exciting” lifestyle.

“Having more than one or two partners is enjoyable. Most of us men and some women practise it.

“It is in our blood. Even our forefathers did it,” Bora says boldly.

He admits that in most cases he has engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse with his numerous girlfriends.

“I used condoms for a few days after we got involved. After some time when I feel I trust them I stop using condoms,” he says.

Bora’s candid remarks could probably explain why Lesotho has the third highest HIV prevalence rate in the world.

The National Aids Commission (NAC) says multiple concurrent sexual partnerships are one of the biggest causes of the high rates of HIV infection in Lesotho.

The practice, defined as having more than one sexual partner at a time, is blamed by aid agencies for fuelling the spread of the pandemic.

The NAC in conjunction with the government and other non-governmental organisations, have joined hands in a major push to effect behaviour change among Basotho.

They all believe the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) could be reduced by 93 percent if people stopped having multiple sexual partners — a tall order indeed, given the cavalier attitude towards sex that is widespread among Basotho.

“Research has shown that if people could stick to one sexual partner, new HIV infections could be reduced by a staggering 93 percent,” said Tariro Chikumbirike from the Southern Africa HIV and Aids Information Dissemination Services, a non-governmental organisation that fights the disease.

The 2008 UNAIDS report appears to back her claims.

The report says the key mode of HIV transmission in Lesotho is the widespread practice of multiple sexual partnerships.

The report, states that sexual relationships by both married and unmarried adults will contribute to 65 percent of all new infections in Lesotho in the next 12 months.

To address this crisis, an NGO called Communication for Change (C-Change) launched an ambitious programme in February last year that includes behavioral research, media awareness and community mobilisation against the disease.

The programme was also meant to address the issue of risks involved in having multiple and concurrent sexual partners and other issues related to intergenerational relationships, transactional sex and gender norms.

The ambitious programme is being carried out in partnership with other agencies such as CARE-Lesotho, Phela Communication and Health Institute and other NGOs.

The programme seeks to intervene and influence behaviour change among Basotho.

A Southern African Development Community (SADC) think-tank meeting held in Maseru in May 2006 acknowledged that multiple sexual partnerships were the biggest cause of the spread of HIV.

Nine countries within the SADC region in turn developed the OneLove Campaign to reduce the practice of multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships in a bid to stem the spread of HIV.

“Having multiple concurrent relationships puts you and your loved ones at risk of getting infected with HIV,” says the OneLove message.

An umbrella media effort organised under the regional OneLove Campaign is also working to increase awareness of the risks related to having multiple sexual partners among adults aged between 18 and 50 years.

The campaign is also being used to spark public discussions around risks of HIV infections related to multiple sexual relationships.

C-Change says research has shown that although some people are aware of the risks they continue to engage in risky behaviour, playing Russian roulette with their lives.

The studies say most continue to engage in multiple and concurrent sexual relationships for the sheer pleasure associated with the practice as well as for transactional sex in the case of women.

This has especially been true for Faki Leta, a Maseru man in his late 20s.

Like Bora, he says he has been involved in multiple sexual relationships with so many women he cannot count on his fingers.

“It is a Mosotho man’s thing to have many women under your name,” Leta said.

“It is culture. It has always been there, it will always be here.”

Leta admits that he is aware of the risks of getting infected with HIV through these multiple sexual partnerships.

He says even when he wants to stop the practice he feels a powerful urge to continue the dangerous practice.

“It is one of the most pleasing things a man could ever do. It is not going to be easy to eradicate,” he said. 

For Lulu Setse, the cause of multiple sexual partnerships is poverty.

“Many women get involved in multiple relationships so that they can get incentives which would help sustain their families’ needs.

“But others do it because they are not satisfied with their present relationships. In that way they feel loved,” Setse said.

The NAC in its 2009 Gender and MCP report admits it has a major battle on its hands.

The report says the prevalence of multiple sexual partnerships is high in Lesotho with four out of every 10 Basotho men engaging in the practice.

“Most men who engaged in MCP had more than two current sexual partners. Among the 722 men in the study engaged in MCP, the median number of concurrent sexual partners was three,” the report says.

“About 30 percent of the men had two concurrent partners, 28 percent of the men had three concurrent partners, while 31 percent had more than three concurrent partners.”

There are fears among NGOs that the message is not being transmitted properly and is therefore not getting home.

The report says messages about HIV should be made in the local vernacular Sesotho language to ensure they get home.

“Messages about “being faithful” need to be developed in line with the nuanced meanings of tsephahala (be faithful).

“Rather than simply translating English words and messages the specific behaviour of having only one sexual partner at a time needs to be interpreted in Sesotho and placed clearly within our cultural context,” said the report.

The report says there is need for national dialogue about the meaning of respect among partners.

“The willingness of people to talk about relationships and sexuality provides an opportunity for change,” it says.

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