Research exposes AIDS workers in Sierra Leone

19 September 2009 at 04:44 | 586 views

By Emmanuel Turay in Nairobi.

A working paper on ‘HIV/AIDS as a Biosocial Formation by Veena Das has revealed that one of the most neglected aspects of research and policy interventions on HIV and AIDS is the way in which sexual and reproductive violence is folded into the experience of the disease.

The paper further disclosed that even in the United States, for instance, the exposure of young girls (and boys) to HIV and AIDS due to sexual violence within their families and communities has received little attention. In the case of countries in which long-term civil war was coterminous with sexual slavery, widespread rape and reproductive violence, HIV risks have been similarly under-explored.

It is not surprising; therefore, that Johannes John-Langbaʼs paper on post-conflict transition in Sierra Leone finds low levels of knowledge about HIV and AIDS in conflict affected communities. The case study paper on Sierra Leone expressed scepticism regarding the motives of NGOs and HIV and AIDS workers who are seen to be exploiting the epidemic as a means of extracting money from international donors.

These perceptions are best understood in the context of the war in Sierra Leone in which systematic violence was perpetrated against women and girls, including sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, abduction, enslavement and torture. The research further shows that the reproductive health problems that women in Sierra Leone continue to face, coupled with the poor medical environment in which treatment is not easy to access, compels an understanding of what the reported attitudes towards HIV and AIDS truly mean.

Dr. John-Langba reports that, in a focus group discussion, a number of girls said that “they do not believe AIDS existed as they had never seen any sufferer.” John-Langba interprets this as an indication of denial about the existence of HIV and AIDS. It is equally possible to read this as a critique of global practices and programmes that target the conditions affecting the security of the international order or the delivery of global public goods, rather than the local conditions that people can see as constituting the suffering they are experiencing here and now. This is not to argue that the threat of HIV and AIDS is overstated, but that for the young women suffering from adverse reproductive health conditions as a consequence of brutal violence, it is the absence of attention to the here and now that stands in need of explanation and not their lack of knowledge of HIV and AIDS the paper revealed.
The research recommends that effective implementation of gender laws that enable women to claim their inheritance rights can help to reduce sexual violence and exploitation and prevalence of HIV. These gender-sensitive laws he maintained should also address effective forms of redress against men involved in sexual violence against women. The current legal system needs to be reformed so that offenders are brought to justice and can no longer enjoy impunity.

On the economic front, new programmes are needed that specifically focus on reducing poverty among women. Livelihood opportunities are needed to allow women to become more autonomous. The fishing sector is one obvious sector where more jobs could be created for women, particularly as poverty forces women to engage in sexual transactions in order to survive.
From a policy standpoint, the research suggests that greater efforts should be made to change perceptions on HIV and AIDS in Sierra Leone in order to encourage voluntary testing and counselling and to reduce high-risk behaviour. Likewise, greater political will and commitment are needed to effectively prevent HIV and mitigate the impacts of HIV and AIDS in the country. Sensitization and awareness-raising programmes are key to improving knowledge on HIV and AIDS among women and girls.