South Africa Tries to Enlist Men in AIDS Battle

by VR Sreeraman on  November 9, 2009 at 12:10 PM AIDS/HIV News
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"There is a new man in South Africa," proclaims a new ad splashed across South African media, aiming to transform ideas about sexuality and to enlist the nation's men in the fight against AIDS.
 South Africa Tries to Enlist Men in AIDS Battle
South Africa Tries to Enlist Men in AIDS Battle

This new South African man's "self worth is not determined by the number of women he can have." He "makes no excuse for unprotected sex" and "respects his woman", the ad reads.

The image of a hard-drinking, fearless seducer still holds powerful appeal for many South African men, posing a major problem to stopping AIDS in a country where 5.7 million of the 48 million population have HIV.

Until now, most AIDS schemes have centred on health centres, which are used mainly by women.

"It is hard to go to a clinic and acknowledge your vulnerability as a man," said Dean Peacock, coordinator at Sonke Gender Justice Network, one of the groups working to engage men.

But men still hold the upper hand in sexual relations, so the "Brothers for Life" campaign aims to convince men to use condoms while also improving their access to treatment.

Currently, women account for three quarters of the HIV tests conducted in South Africa, and two thirds of the anti-retroviral drugs dispensed.

What's more, men tend to seek treatment later than women, when their immune systems are already weakened.

"There is nothing especially made for men. We need to do something to talk to men," said Mzi Lwana, head of the Men and Aids program at the HIV research unit at Witwatersrand University.

Since February, his unit has organised clinics three times a week in downtown Johannesburg, offering consultations only for men.

Patients can meet with a nurse, a social worker or an educator, all of them men.

"It is much easier to explain to a man," said Victor Makhitsa, one of the patients in nurse Luthando Qobo's office.

"We can go as far as showing our problem... it is like friendship. I feel free to talk to him."

Qobo tries to encourage that relaxed atmosphere to make it easier for people to open up. He doesn't wear a uniform, and speaks to patients in Zulu if they wish.

"It has to be a friendly-user initiative" to help men open up about intimate problems, Qobo said.

"They come mostly for STDs, loss of libido, fertility problems and HIV," he added.

The group is also leading awareness campaigns at football matches, in bars, and in the hostels that are home to many of the workers and taxi drivers known for their machismo.

Also gaining steam are efforts to encourage men to get circumcised, which studies have shown reduces men's risk of infection by at least half.

A major project is underway in the township of Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg, which the Wits research unit's Lauren Jankelowitz said is generating support among other campaigners because it brings men into clinics.

South Africa's health ministry, which recognised in 2007 the need to target AIDS programmes at men, supports these initiatives but still hasn't put together a coherent national plan, campaigners say.

"There isn't yet a government campaign," Jankelowitz said. "We have the support of the government, but it is not yet taking the lead."

Source: AFP

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