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Women in Nigeria: Religion, Culture, and AIDS
Submitted by admin on 1 November, 2003 - 10:33
Women in Nigeria: Religion, Culture, and the AIDS Pandemic
By Celestina Omoso Isiramen
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. It is a country on the brink of an AIDS disaster. And its dominant religions – traditional religion, Christianity, and Islam – all proclaim the superiority of males to females. These three aspects are closely linked.
In traditional Nigerian society, there is no separation between the laws governing secular and spiritual spheres. What the gods say is sanctioned by society and forms the norms of the community. They cannot be challenged, especially by women. This divinely ordained male dominance forms the ultimate basis of patriarchal entrenchment in Nigerian culture.
The siege of patriarchy encompasses all spheres in Nigerian society including practices like female genital mutilation, child marriage, widow inheritance, rape, and polygamy. Talk about sex is considered immoral; sexual issues are not open to discussion. This secrecy surrounding sexual relations, combined with the religious and cultural expectations that subjugate women, largely explains women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS in the country. No effort to curb the spread of AIDS in Nigeria can afford to ignore the influence of religion and culture.
HIV/AIDS in Nigeria
Nigeria has the fastest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in West Africa. In 1999, the prevalence of HIV among women attending antenatal clinics in Nigeria rose from less than 1% to 21%. Current projections show an increase in the number of new AIDS cases from 250,000 in the year 2000 to 360,000 by 2010. Women are reported to make up 60% of HIV/AIDS sufferers in the country. Reasons for this are not hard to come by.
Religion, Sex, and the Status of Women
Sex is the main means of infection by the HIV virus. Women’s susceptibility is correlated to the religiouscultural demands of society with regard to sexual relations. Both traditional religion and Islam allow polygamy, and women cannot expect fidelity from their husbands. Even Christianity, while emphasizing marital fidelity and monogamy, expects the submission of women to their husbands.
Discussions of sexuality are considered indecent for girls and women. Throughout their lives, women are expected to bear suffering and humiliation in silence. Right from the cradle, this is the life to which girls are groomed and indoctrinated. Thus, from fear of castigation, rejection, and shaming, most women suffer any venereal diseases, including HIV/AIDS, without a word. Fertile ground indeed for the spread of AIDS.
Marriage is a highly valued institution. The onus of making a marriage successful falls on women alone. Nigerian women sacrifice a lot to keep the sanctity of marriage, to avoid rebuke and dishonour, and the disgrace of divorce. And a successful marriage means, in effect, providing sex whenever their husbands demand it.
As with all heavily patriarchal societies, the expectations of men and women are vastly different when it comes to sexual relations. While for women to engage in extramarital relationships is taboo, men who do so are considered virile. To prove their virility and power, Nigerian men engage in extramarital sex in the very face of AIDS. The case of Modupe, a young woman from Ibadan, in Western Nigeria, will help drive this point home. Modupe discovered that her husband was having sex with prostitutes. She did everything within her power to make her husband stop but to no avail. So, for fear of contracting venereal disease, she decided to stop having sex with him. Her husband reported her to the elders of his family. Modupe was asked to choose between divorce and satisfying her husband’s sexual demands. Modupe insisted that she would not have sex with him unless he stopped seeing other women. The elders asked her to leave. She did, and her former husband remarried two months later. To add to Modupe’s suffering, her mother also castigated her for bringing shame to the family. Few women would have the courage to face such a situation.
Domestic Violence and Rape
Nigerian women’s low status in marriage also makes them vulnerable to violence from their husbands. When men beat up their wives, there are no reprisals. Marital rape must be suffered in silence. Fear of beating and rape keeps many women from questioning their husbands’ sexual escapades. And submission frequently reaps a death sentence: many women contract AIDS as a result of coerced sex. For unmarried girls, the situation is even worse. If a rape is reported, it is the girl who suffers the shame, and all chance of future marriage. Under such circumstances, women’s ability to protect themselves is minimal.
AIDS has added a further, nasty dimension to this situation. Odion tested positive to HIV/AIDS in the city of Lagos. He went to his hometown of Igueben from Lagos and raped eight girls there within a month, after which he prepared a notice entitled ‘HIV Carriers in Igueben’, typed out their names, and pasted copies on signposts all over the town. Odion and the eight girls were arrested immediately. On interrogation, Odion explained that he didn’t want to die alone and that he wanted to enjoy himself before he died. The girls tested positive to HIV. In tears, they described how fear of shame and rejection had prevented them reporting the rape. While rape continues to thrive, checking the spread of HIV/AIDS becomes a Herculean task.
The Pressures of Poverty
Yet despite the codes of conduct indoctrinated into women, there are many who live the precarious and dangerous life of the sex worker. The prime reason is a pressure even greater than culture and religion: economic pressure.
The economic situation plays an important role in the spread of AIDS. Currently, Nigeria produces around 100,000 graduates every year. Of these, 90% join the teeming mass of unemployed youths. Nigeria is richly endowed with human and natural resources. But mismanagement, misappropriation and embezzlement in government circles have led to the masses being reduced to abject poverty. The proportion of the population living on less than $1 a day has reached 70% and is increasing, exacerbated by religious and ethnic upheavals that result in death and the destruction of property.
In all this, women are worst affected. Girls are forced into prostitution to escape poverty. Their choice is a stark one: die of starvation now or run a high risk of contracting AIDS and dying a few years on. While the threat of hunger remains, no amount of preaching against prostitution will change the situation. In a country with an AIDS pandemic, their route for survival becomes an instrument of death.
Genital Mutilation and Widowhood Rites
Women are further exposed to the risk of AIDS by particular rites and customs. The most shocking is the practice of female genital mutilation. Enforced as a check on women’s promiscuity, and often justified as part of Islamic tradition, these horrific operations are often carried out by local ‘physicians’ using unsterilized instruments. Such operations carry considerable danger to the young girls’ health in themselves. The implications for the spread of AIDS need not be spelt out.
Nigerian women are also exposed to health hazards, including the risk of HIV infection, by the rites they must perform at the death of their husbands. These religious rites are considered to be important in easing the journey of the soul of the departed to the next world. The widow’s head is shaved with an unsterilized razor. She may be forced to marry a relation of her late husband, who may not have undergone an AIDS test. She is also at greater risk of being raped. Otibhor Edogar, from Ekpoma in Edo State, is HIV positive. She could not pinpoint the actual source of her contracting the infection, but she knows that, apart from the widowhood rites she was forced to perform, she was raped by her late husband’s younger brother, Ebakole. She had refused the village elder’s suggestion that she marry Ebakole. Otibhor ended her account weeping: “I am dying and abandoning my only two daughters in this cruel world.”
The catchphrase of the war against HIV/AIDS has been ‘Say No to Unsafe Sex’. How realistic is this for women in Nigeria? It should be apparent from the discussion above that their power to say ‘No’ is limited indeed.
Decisions on safe sex are left with men. Women are rarely in a position to insist on the use of a condom if their partners do not want it. Nor can they protect themselves by using a female condom without their husbands’ permission or they may be accused of infidelity. Campaigns for safe sex do not take into account the conditions in which the majority of Nigerian women live.
The secrecy attached to women’s sexual experiences through religious-cultural norms contributes in no small measure to women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. Secrecy and stigmatization also explain to a large extent why potential victims of HIV/AIDS often refuse to be tested. Most women are therefore not aware that they are infected.
The Way Forward
The sex roles assigned to women in Nigeria will be familiar to women across the African continent. But no culture is immune to change. Some cultural barriers are breaking down in Nigeria. The pace is slow, however. As a way forward, I would propose the following:
● Nigerians must let go of traditional notions of male dominance. As Martin Foreman, Director of the AIDS Programme of the Panos Institute, London, has said: “...the AIDS epidemic cannot be contained until men are persuaded to reassess their traditional concepts of masculinity. Without men, there would be no AIDS epidemic.”
● To prevent the transmission of HIV, the secrecy surrounding sexual issues must be replaced with information and education. Sex education should form part of the school curriculum.
● Stigmatization and discrimination against AIDS sufferers should be resisted, and their rights advocated.
● Women must be empowered to make decisions about their own bodies. They must be encouraged to resist religious, cultural, and economic pressures to engage in unwanted sexual relationships. They must be in a position to avoid unprotected sex. An enabling atmosphere should be promoted by the Nigerian government, including sponsored seminars and conferences.
● And finally, this is not a problem of concern to Nigerians alone. Humanist groups all over the world should show their support in eradicating the social, cultural, and economic conditions which have allowed the AIDS pandemic to happen.
The AIDS epidemic has exposed the barbaric treatment to which Nigerian women are subjected. Their special vulnerability also exposes men and children to the deadly disease. It is time to wage war against the conditions of women, conditions which have greatly exacerbated the spread of AIDS. Waging war means talking openly about sexual issues. It calls for breaking the silence. To be effective, on the brink of an AIDS catastrophe, we should focus our efforts not so much on attacking the aspects of religion that reduce women to non-entities, but on education and technological development, which will in themselves serve to eradicate the regressive pulls on women of religion and culture.
Dr Celestina Omoso Isiramen is Director of the General Studies Unit, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Nigeria.