The government should address how its own officials understand HIV. Not doing so allows blame and stigma to flourish – and this puts more people, not less, at risk argues Williams Moi.
At the end of last year, during an event to commemorate World AIDS Day, Ben Etonu, resident district commander of Soroti in eastern Uganda, blamed the spread of HIV in the district on an “infestation” of sex workers. He appealed to “all ladies in the whole of Soroti district and the whole world to take precaution that, if any man asks you for sexual love, tell him openly that you do not want to kill him, rather than receiving their money and keeping quiet with the virus.”
I thought I would speak to people in Soroti town to hear what they think Etonu blaming women, and female sex workers in particular, for the spread of HIV.
One woman Christine said: “Not all the women are responsible for HIV spread. He is blaming us as if it is women only who spread it alone yet it is all of us who are faced with the HIV pandemic. The point is how did the women acquire HIV? Did it come to them or were they given [it]?
“We are driven by men for sex yet it is not always our wish. We don’t ask for it ourselves as the RDC claims. How can you blame women for spreading HIV? We cannot go for sex without men’s demands.
“One thing the RDC says is right; women do accept money for sex because we women are forced to receive it due to acute poverty, [a] lack of basic needs. We also want such things as new dresses, mobile phones, perfumes…and many others I cannot enumerate. Commercial love is for many people. It comes about because one [man] does not know how to seduce a woman but instead uses money to win the love affection.
“But we don’t sleep with men simply because of money but at times due to boredom, desire, nature, poverty, weakness. Other women are sexually starved while their husbands are far away. Others have lust; they want sex all the time. The moment they get a man, they fall in love…others fall in love after annoyance in a domestic brawl.
“Eventually you end up getting HIV and die. But the RDC himself cannot talk without understanding the public opinion, especially women’s needs. He cannot utter anything without revisiting his speech.”
James, a man I spoke to who pays for sex, was of the opinion that women have sex for money, regardless of whether they see themselves as sex workers.
“In Uganda, women fall in love for Christmas presents or for buying new dresses or clothes in exchange for sex during the celebrations and new year festivities,” he said.
He told me about a time in Kampala when he was having sexual desire and approached a sex worker. She told him to pay 100,000 shillings for unprotected sex. He resorted to paying 30,000 shillings for sex with a condom. He says he made this choice because this is all he could afford.
Men’s desire not to wear condoms was also discussed by Christine: “Yes it is automatic that men are equally responsible for HIV spread due to their refusal to wear condoms,” she said.
“Why does RDC apportion blame on us women only? Some men don’t wear condoms due to high sexual libidos. Others are rigid and can’t afford condoms. Others say they are expensive. Others are shy and fear condoms because it gives them hard time during sexual intercourse. In remote villages condoms are at times not available.”
A sex worker known only as Immaculate echoed Christine’s view. She said it is unfair to blame sex workers for spreading HIV as many clients refuse to wear condoms. She added that in Kampala a man living with HIV may pay as much as 5 million Uganda shillings in cash “so as to seduce you to have commercial sex with him at your own peril” and that some men will pledge up to 50 million for “homosexuality” with you [anal sex].
She added: “This makes it risky for you to have sex for money without wearing a condom which protects you from acquiring HIV. He does not care about the risk of contracting HIV but once you accept to go with him the risk is yours. The women are at high risks because of accepting the money in exchange for risky sex. It is risky for a living.”
Not understanding these issues means that those in power can give out the wrong messages on HIV prevention.