Frank dialogue about gender is key to tackling HIV/AIDS

In a community hall in South Africa's largest informal settlement, Soweto, about 20 men and women are seated in a semi-circle, talking about sex and gender roles. Working in groups, they have just completed two lists, one beginning "I'm glad to be a man/woman because ... " and the other, "If I were a man/woman I could ... "

The "I'm glad I'm a man" list, compiled by the male group, includes, "because I can have multiple partners," while the women's "If I were a man" list says, "I could sleep around the way I want." The resulting discussion is heating up faster than the corrugated iron roof of the hall.

"If a woman says 'no' to sex she's destroying her family because her husband will be forced to go outside for sex," one of the men says.

"If you married the woman, you should be faithful to her," one of the women responds.

Rather than allowing the debate to degenerate into a battle of the sexes, the group facilitator uses the exercise to emphasise the similarities between men and women and talk about how gender roles are largely created by culture: "As a man, if you have more than one partner you're praised for it, but if a woman does that, she's called names," he points out.

It is the first day of a four-day workshop that encourages frank discussions about sex, gender relations and violence against women; the goal is to influence attitudes and behaviours that can fuel the spread of the HI virus.

Similar workshops have taken place all over Soweto, and in many other parts of the country, as part of a programme called Men As Partners (MAP) launched in 1998 by the international NGO, EngenderHealth, in partnership with the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa.

Until recently men have largely been absent in the battle against HIV/AIDS in South Africa, where more than 21 percent of the population is HIV positive.

Dean Peacock, who manages the MAP programme, pointed out that so far AIDS awareness campaigns focusing only on women had proved redundant, as women were unable to negotiate safe sex with their male partners.

Research conducted in preparation for designing the MAP project revealed that 58 percent of the 2,000 South African men surveyed had never used a condom, despite 35 percent having previously had a sexually transmitted disease. More than half blamed women for provoking rape by the way they dressed or walking alone after dark, and 22 percent approved of a man beating his partner.

Peacock noted that these statistics were by no means unique to South Africa. "This is not an issue that's culturally or racially specific," he told IRIN. "I've done this work in Latin and North America and you find the same issues there."

Although there has been widespread acknowledgement of the connection between HIV/AIDS and violence against women, MAP is one of the few initiatives actively addressing the link.

Sgidi Sibego coordinates MAP workshops in Soweto for Hope Worldwide, part of EngenderHealth's network of local partner organisations.

"My mum was abused but I never wanted to be like my father. Growing up in a township I experienced a lot of domestic violence. In my neighbourhood you'd hear screams but you'd do nothing about it - it was almost normal - but that was not right," he explained.

Although some MAP workshops are for men only, on the assumption that men are more likely to express their views honestly in an all-male group, Sibego believes mixed groups are also helpful.

"As much as we're blaming men, women also need to change their mindset," he said, adding that young men, who make up the majority of workshop participants, appeared to have no problem speaking freely in front of women, but he acknowledged that involving older men, who were much less receptive to changing attitudes they viewed as part of their culture, was more challenging.

"It could be five or six workshops before you can start to see change," Sibego said. "And then there needs to be follow up and other interventions."

Tshidiso Legwala has been attending MAP workshops for several months and says it has changed his attitude towards women "in a huge way".

The 26-year-old, who works as a hairdresser in Soweto, admits he used to be abusive towards his former girlfriend when she became too emotional. "I didn't used to think women had the same rights as men. I communicate with women much better now." He has also learned a great deal about HIV/AIDS, which, he says, he passes on to friends and customers at the hair salon.

A new programme called MAP Plus is aimed at bringing together men who have been through the training to provide support for each other, as they may face ridicule from other men and even resistance from female partners who fear disapproval from friends and family.

There is no way to accurately measure how many HIV infections the MAP programme may or may not have prevented, but a two-year Population Council study, still in its early stages, is evaluating changes in attitude and behaviour in men who have been through the workshops, their partners and even the wider community they come into contact with.

From preliminary focus group discussions, Dr Jane Chege, who is overseeing the study, believes MAP has tremendous potential if it can succeed in extending its scope. Currently, she says, the workshops are mainly attended by unemployed men, but there are efforts underway to use existing structures, such as church groups, trade unions and educational institutions, to reach a broader cross-section of the community.

According to Chege the men who have been through the workshops said "they've started questioning things they'd never questioned before." Aaron Nthau, 22, who has attended a number of MAP workshops seems to confirm her impression.

"I grew up in a society which took women to be inferior beings," he says. "Now I can take a woman as equal to me."