Last weekend in Kampala, as I was sitting in a café, a man came up to ask me for money for food, saying that he had malaria and was on his way to a hospital. I’m usually wary of giving money even in the states, but he seemed sincere so that I gave him enough money to go buy a full meal for himself, as I was on my way to the café where a meal would cost almost 8 times as much as a standard Ugandan meal. Immediately, I was overcome by guilt, until I later saw the same man accompany a white man into the café, where it seemed he would be buying him a meal. After he noticed the prices though, he must’ve said something, as the man who asked for money left shortly after. Then, I felt sadness. People here treasure us all for the value of the dollar (for our money, in general). Money is the biggest prize there is in this country – which is why corruption exists, why crimes exist, and although it may seem longwinded, it is also a factor in perpetuating HIV and AIDS. Many relationships aren’t built on love – rather, they are built on money and nice gifts. Women date men that have cars, that have good jobs, and that can buy them gifts and take them to nice dinners.
A book that I am currently reading, called The Invisible Cure, explores this notion. The concept of love doesn’t exactly exist like it does back at home, where there is widespread belief in soulmates and where money doesn’t dictate who you choose as your partner (at least, not so much). Still, the ideals we have lead to an obsessive search for true love, and inevitably, can be quick to result in divorce. But here, and especially in more rural, poverty-stricken areas, women will seek men with money, who will shower them with gifts disguised as “love” in exchange for their virginities, their vulnerabilities, and their willingness to participate in unsafe sex and even rape. Such men will be unfaithful, and even though their girlfriend(s) might know, they won’t leave him or say anything because they like the stability that their boyfriend’s money provides. At the same time, this unfaithfulness creates something like a “superhighway” for spreading HIV/AIDS. Already, I have talked to a man who has been in 4 relationships, all of which have ended because the women cheated on him with men with jobs, during a time when he himself was unemployed. Just walking to and from work, I have been approached by many men who have asked me if I was married. When I responded that I was not married, but that I had someone back at home, they would say something along the lines of: “Let me be your man here” or “How sure are you that he is faithful to you?” Earlier this week I spent some days in the office logging client forms, and could see that many of the youth reported being in concurrent relationships with as many as up to 4 partners at the same time. Research still shows that the number of partners the average Ugandan will have is less than what the average American may have. But it is the concurrency that creates superhighways for HIV/AIDS incidence. Now I see why the B (for Be faithful) of the ABC model of HIV/AIDS, the model adopted by Uganda since the 1980s, is such an important component to fighting HIV and AIDS here. But obviously, you can’t just tell couples to be faithful and think that their behaviors will substantially change — the issue lies in much deeper realms of this developing nation.
Similarly, gender inequality comprises a great deal to this issue. Many women and girls are cheated of their “rights” when it comes to their relationships with men. After asking a UDHA staff member about the case the police chief had told me about earlier last week, she shared that even if the girl had become impregnated by her father as he raped her, she would most likely not talk about it. She would be stigmatized by the community, for multiple generations even. She might try to induce an abortion herself – a very dangerous and risky practice – using the branch of a weed or another homemade device. Her father might go to prison, but for at most only 5 years, and then come back to abuse her even further. She would have no way out. Other times, the perpetrator, like the father in this case, might even be able to leverage property or money to avoid prison. I can’t even begin to imagine how it would feel to be that girl.
Of course, such relationships and gender concepts are very complex. And it is totally shocking to witness the cultural attitude here with respect to women and children. For example, it is widely believed in Uganda that women have no right to deny their husbands sex (termed “sex denial”). Many believe that doing so prompts promiscuity on the part of the man, thus increasing the woman’s risk of HIV because of the man’s infidelity. Of course, this is not to say that women can’t be unfaithful as well. It’s horrifying to know that money can drive such infidelity, though– that a woman’s fear for her financial security later in life dictates who she gives herself to. I feel for the modest, but loving man who only seeks for a woman to love him back unconditionally and despite the small extent of his earnings. I feel for how he might fear his whole life for his partner’s betrayal, and ultimately, I feel for how his status in life may contribute to his and his children’s risks of HIV. Clearly, HIV prevention programs should not only target “high-risk” populations (like prostitutes, rural villagers, boda boda riders), but the general population as well, because unlike in other countries with high HIV prevalence rates, HIV poses a real threat to everyone, like the average man looking for love. This is also precisely the reason why prevention models need to be culturally appropriate and relevant to the communities they hope to serve. In other words, the solely morally-driven motives of some large donors should not influence international policies for HIV prevention in foreign nations.