Africa is facing a devastating crisis with respect to the AIDS epidemic, currently accounting for over 70% of the world's HIV-positive population. There are, of course, many factors that drive the explosive transmission of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, but in the tangled web that is the epidemic in Africa, many of these issues share a common thread. The oppression of women in Africa can be considered the virus' cultural vector. Females are rendered powerless in African societies, and existing gender inequalities are largely responsible for the spread of the disease. Females' disadvantaged position in society is intrinsically linked to the subordination of women in their relationships with men. In order for progress to be made, an examination of gender relations and empowerment for women must take place. To be successful, AIDS campaigns must be built on the existing organizational skills of women, but must incorporate men as well. The blatantly skewed distribution of power in African patriarchal societies makes women extremely vulnerable but has dangerous implications for all.
To examine the forces that steer the epidemic down its course, the epidemiology of HIV and AIDS in Africa must first be considered. More than 80% of all HIV infections in Africa are acquired through heterosexual contact. This statistic is grossly out of balance with the 13% rate of infection through heterosexual contact in the United States. Vertical transmission from mother to child is the second most common route for the virus to take in Africa (Essex et al., 158). These rates are generally much higher than in the United States and Europe, where the use of a drug called nevirapine has drastically reduced mother-to-child transmission. This disparity is a direct result of differences in the nations' wealth. African nations simply cannot afford to provide the drug to infected pregnant women. The continued transmission of HIV through contaminated blood during processes such as blood transfusions is another dismal consequence of poverty and inferior health services in many African countries. This method accounts for the third most important mode of transmission, one that has been virtually eradicated in many countries because the technology is available to prevent it (Essex et al., 159). Part of what makes the situation in Africa so devastating is that the primary roads the virus travels in Africa were shut down long ago in other countries. Much of the world's population already takes many of the roadblocks for granted. The transmission route of heterosexual contact is so heavily traveled in Africa that it demands an examination of sexual behavior.
Before we delve into the workings of intimate relationships, however, the fine points of gender inequality in the public sphere must be examined. These social conditions spill over into every aspect of life, tainting women's casual and sexual relationships with men. Women are systematically disadvantaged in African society. Male bias in the structures of society is reflected in day-to-day behavior, embedded in legislation, policy, political and religious ideologies, and cultural conventions (Baylies et al., 6). Examples of this trend abound. The Civil Code of the Empire of Ethiopia designates the husband as the head of the family and gives him the authority to administer household property. The husband is given the right to control and manage common property and to make all decisions regarding it. While the Code requires that the husband act judiciously and not alienate property without the consent of his wife, strong traditional and cultural beliefs discourage women from enforcing this requirement (African Region Findings). In Kenya, the Constitution permits the application of customary law to personal matters. The Constitution contains no provisions for gender as a basis for non-discrimination and consequently, even gender-biased practices are held as valid and constitutional. Women's access to...
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