When I read the first paragraph or two of this article (via Norm Geras), I thought perhaps it was from the Onion. The King of Swaziland, banning sex thoughout the realm? A ceremony of dancing girls, burning the tassels that signified their chastity?
It also brought to mind a certain comic operetta, “The Mikado,” the Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece featuring a mythical Japan in which flirting was a capital crime; and a musical comedy from my youth, “Once Upon a Mattress,” a retelling of “The Princess and the Pea,” set in a fairy tale kingdom where no one could marry until the crown prince was wed.
But as I read on, I discovered that it’s not a joke. It’s real, and it’s no operetta, despite the following:
As [the girls] arrived at the Queen Mother’s palace on Monday, before taking off their tassels, they sang in jest: “At last, we can now have sex.”
But after the strangeness–as well as the musical comedy overtones–of the story recede, we are left with a horrific human tragedy, that of AIDS in Africa and what to do about it. And the truth is that no one really seems to have all that much more of a clue than the King of Swaziland, a country in which 40% of the population is HIV positive.
Think about that for a moment: 40% of the people HIV-positive, and the mechanism of spread is heterosexual sexual contact. This is a prescription for the death of a country, and a region, unless something happens soon. But what is that something?
I’ve read many articles on the subject of AIDS in Africa, and there’s no shortage of earnest proposals to help the situation. But most of the people who work in the field express a deep despair about the nature and scope of the problem.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on this, and I’m most definitely not knocking those who are. But at the moment the problem seems virtually insurmountable. The AIDS situation in sub-Saharan Africa is so complex and terrible because the disease intersects with myriad other problems that have long plagued the area–poverty, malnutrition, other diseases, political and institutional corruption on a widespread scale, and the breakdown of tribal societies–particularly ancient marriage customs–with the coming of urbanization.
Although it may be un-PC to admit it, part of the picture are sexual mores (some of them connected with the exploitation of women) that have helped the AIDS epidemic run rampant in sub-Saharan Africa, along with official denial of the enormous extent of the problem. The King of Swaziland may indeed be a hypocrite, and he may be utterly unrealistic about human nature, but at least he’s not in denial of the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic in his country.
Here’s an article that offers a good summary of the AIDS problem in sub-Saharan Africa. It contained the following list of the elements that need to be in place to effectively prevent the spread of AIDS there. See how likely you think it is that most of the items on this list could be instituted any time soon, especially the final entry:
Widespread knowledge about HIV/AIDS and HIV prevention measures, such as safe sex practices and the use of condoms
Adequate networks and personnel for HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, education and care
Adequate funding for HIV prevention/treatment
Massive campaigns to remove the stigma of HIV/AIDS
Stable networks for education and health care
Strong political and public health leadership to address HIV prevention efforts
Empowerment of women
Enforced prohibitions against rape
Strong infrastructure (roads, telecommunications)
Strong and stable economies and governments that are not engaged in war or civil unrest
The article goes on to state that cultural customs around sexuality impede the fight against AIDS. If you have the stomach for it (and I warn you, it requires a very strong one) you could also take a look at this Village Voice article, which offers a great many depressing details about these customs and how they further the spread of the disease.
The following is an example (from the Voice article) of how certain cultural practices that once made sense in pre-AIDS tribal cultures have become part of the problem, post-AIDS:
Like many cultures in East and southern Africa, the Luo practice what is variously translated as home guardianship or, more commonly, widow inheritance. When a husband dies, one of his brothers or cousins marries the widow. This tradition guaranteed that the children would remain in the late husband’s clan—after all, they had paid a dowry for the woman—and it also ensured that the widow and her children were provided for. When the guardian takes the widow, sexual intercourse is believed to “cleanse” her of the devils of death. A woman who refuses to take a guardian brings down chira—ill fortune—on the entire clan. Of course, if her husband died of AIDS, she might very well pass on the virus to her guardian. Millicent Obaso, a Luo public-health worker with the Red Cross, says: “We have homes where all the males have died because of this widow inheritance.”
There is little doubt that underlying social change on a vast scale is necessary–as well as economic and political change. But how to effect changes in sexual practices in the absence of these deeper changes? Most attempts to accomplish this by legislation would be as doomed to failure as King Mswati’s, even if they were more sophisticated than his.