Feature story

Men playing a role in eliminating new HIV infections among children and keeping mothers alive

21 March 2012

Men gather to discuss cultural and social issues related to gender justice and equality.

Sitting on a traditional stool at a Dare—a special meeting platform, Chief Chiveso of Mashonaland Central Province in Zimbabwe speaks to men about the possibility of having babies born HIV free and keeping their mothers alive. For that to happen, stresses the Chief, there is a need to challenge harmful cultural and religious practices that can affect community responses to HIV.  "As a Chief, I am going to continue supporting and leading health issues in my village so that families can live better.”

Chief Chiveso has the support of Padare/Men’s Forum on Gender—a Zimbabwean organisation that works with traditional leaders in Mashonaland to influence public opinion on various community issues. These include the promotion of HIV services and mobilising men to actively participate in preventing new HIV infections among children.

Men play a significant role in defining community practices. Traditionally, Zimbabwean men would gather around a fire or under a tree to discuss community issues and make decisions about the community while excluding women and children. This practice fuelled gender inequalities since most decisions did not take into account women’s views.

Padare’s goal is to subvert this exclusive male practice and bring together traditional and local leaders, pastors, grandfathers, fathers, uncles and brothers to discuss cultural and social issues related to gender justice and equality, including the support for programmes to stop new HIV infections among children.

"In these communities men have positions, power and privileges that come from patriarchal values. We are harnessing their power so that they can be agents of social change in their communities," said Kevin Hazangwi, Director of Padare.

Zimbabwe’s National AIDS Strategic Plan aims to reduce transmission of HIV from mothers to children from 14% in 2010 to 7% in 2013 and to less than 5% by 2015. Currently, Government figures indicate 70% coverage of prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission services in the country.

Rising community voices in HIV action

Through the Padare initiative, Chief Chiveso engages men in open dialogues where community members are encouraged to challenge low health seeking behaviours in the village and to understand HIV prevention, treatment and care services. These interactive dialogues—known as Community Conversations—enable community decision-making and actions concerning the elimination of HIV.

“This programme gave me a lot of knowledge about existing antiretroviral drugs and HIV prevention services,” said Tatenda, a proud father living with HIV. “I was supporting my wife when she was in labour. I now have twins who were born HIV negative.”

We are harnessing the power of men so that they can be agents of social change in their communities

Kevin Hazangwi, Director of Padare

Padare also conducts consultative meetings that tap into the local rich traditions. These meetings enable communities to identify gaps in knowledge and attitudes, behaviours and cultural practices that are harmful to the AIDS response. In these open discussions, community members are able to raise key issues and provide solutions without personalising the issues. Spousal inheritance and girl pledging for spirit appeasement—offering of a young girl to remedy criminal offences or to appease the spirit of a murdered person—are among the negative cultural practices that are discussed.

A higher-level platform known as Indaba is also used by Padare to engage the Chiefs themselves to advocate for greater action in their respective communities. Such dialogue enables the Chiefs to agree on sound HIV policies ensuring the involvement of men in preventing new HIV infections at community and national level.

“As Chiefs we should play a major role in sensitising our communities. Over and above the right of children to a dignified life, the babies we are losing are potential nurses, doctors and teachers for our society’s tomorrow,” added Chief Chiveso.

Traditional leaders as custodians of culture

Faith-based leaders in Mashonaland Central are also taking action to change negative religious and cultural practices and boost service uptake in their communities.

“Religion and the church have been accused for being the source of male chauvinism and patriarchy. We pledge to keep it as a fountain of hope, a source of information and health,” said Pastor Sifelani, of the Anglican Church in Bindura. “Gone are the days when we would encourage people to flush away antiretroviral drugs because they have been healed and we blamed witchcraft for sickness and death instead of HIV.”

Traditional leaders are considered the custodians of culture and are therefore critical to shift society’s attitudes. Bringing together communities to discuss issues in their own terms has a positive effect in increasing HIV service uptake. There is greater scope for replicating this programming model in sub-Saharan Africa where the idea of men’s forums is culturally appropriate and can be traced to past and current practices.