At the school where we live in Botswana, Africa, there is a mural with a caption in big red letters: "Girls: U Can Prevent Pregnancy/HIV". I tried to film a video of me talking in front of the mural about how the words send a flawed message to high school students. Basically, the mural's words imply that HIV and teen pregnancy prevention falls solely on teenage girls' shoulders. It is an issue here in Botswana that is too complex to try and sum up in a few words for a video camera, so I decided to write about it instead. Because the gender issues surrounding HIV are so dear to my heart and purpose in the Peace Corps, I am sure this will be a topic that I revisit time and again during my two years here in Botswana.
Unfortunately, teenage pregnancy and several types of sexually transmitted infections including HIV are prevalent for Botswana teens. It is unfair for a mural to depict prevention as an issue for girls only. There are many people who influence or affect this situation including: boys, men, and women in the community, parents, teachers, school counselors, health professionals, local and national government, media, foreign aid, etc. (The list could go on and on.) However, teenage girls are blamed for unwanted pregnancy or for bringing HIV “into the family”. When a girl becomes pregnant, she must take an HIV test at the clinic or hospital where she receives antenatal care. If found to be HIV +, the partner or family often blame the girl/woman for bringing the virus into the family/relationship and accuse her of acting promiscuously. However, rape and defilement are often culprits of teenage pregnancy. During my staff meetings at the hospitals, it is not uncommon for me to hear about young girls being raped by their uncles, friends, or other acquaintances, so it is important to note that most rape cases occur domestically and by someone the girl is very close to.
Additionally, there are “transactional relationships” that influence teenage pregnancy and HIV infection. This is when young girls are enticed by older men to sleep with them in exchange for some gift such as a cell phone, food, clothes, etc. Sometimes families are even aware of these relationships and do nothing to prosecute them as defilement cases because they know the girl is bringing goods into the household or they consider the man to be worthy of marriage and trick themselves into thinking that the daughter will marry the man someday. Some families even encourage girls to enter these relationships for “the sake of the family”. Since the girls are much younger than the men in these transactional relationships by anywhere from 10-40 years and because of long standing gender inequalities surrounding sexual behavior, girls are unable to make the man wear a condom. In addition, men often tell the girls that since they are getting a provision of some sort for the sex, it is not their place to stipulate condom use.
Girls who want to attend secondary school (high school) but live too far away from the villages the schools are located in must live at the school as a boarder. This can be a dangerous situation for girls because they are often sexually abused by the boys who board at the school. This is an infrastructure problem because of the way the boarding houses are managed and because of how close together the boys and girls dormitories are located. In some situations, there are only one or two “boarding masters” for 200-400 children living at any one school. These boarding masters are supposed to keep a close watch on the children after school hours but are not always “manning their posts” properly or are unable to regulate all illegal and dangerous behavior of hundreds of children at once.
Gender inequalities, poverty and economic opportunities, and education are just three of the major areas that go into preventing such a deep seeded issue like rising teenage pregnancy rates and HIV infection in Botswana. I am not by any means the foremost expert on the issue and have only lived in Botswana for four months, so I'm afraid I have not done the issue justice with this short note. I hope to readdress the topic at some time in the near future. However, I hope I have driven the point home that girls face a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding teen pregnancy and HIV in Botswana and that this issue is one that falls on the shoulders of many different people, not just girls.
If you would like to get a better understanding on why the HIV prevalence is the second highest in the world here in Botswana, please check out a book called, The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS by Helen Epstein, particularly the chapters on Southern Africa. The book is not about Botswana only but it does address the contributing factors in Botswana. Also, you can read Saturday is for Funerals by Unity Dow that is strictly about the HIV epidemic in Botswana and is written by a Motswana writer.
Thank you for taking the time to read about this issue that is so dear to my heart and I hope you will continue to follow our blogs and facebook postings!