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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Grass-rootin' for Policy Change

"In Zambia, sex is not a negotiation," Gesh Banda, a Grassroot Soccer program assistant, and a 23-year-old native of Lusaka, Zambia, told me the other day during a conversation about Zambian culture. Gesh explained that in a typical Zambian relationship, men control all "terms" of sexual interaction. Women are expected to be submissive, to comply with the demands and desires of their partner, who is often unfaithful. While I was discouraged by what Gesh was telling me, I was not necessarily surprised. After two months of visiting schools and soccer teams throughout Lusaka to monitor the delivery of the GRS curriculum, the difference between young girls and boys was more than clear. Zambian boys come right up to me, asking "how ahh you, how ahh you" and shaking hands. They are not shy about calling me John Cena, their favorite WWF wrestler, or David Beckham (in both cases the similarities unfortunately end at the fact that I am white and have light colored hair). On the other hand, the young girls in the class typically stay seated at their desks, they do not make eye contact with me or the other GRS staff, and they rarely ask or answer questions.

Sadly, the roles and rules of gender are established early in Zambia -- with frightening repercussions. According to the statistics, 50 percent of new HIV infections are in youth aged 15-24. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, infection rates among women age 15-24 are four to seven times higher than those of their male peers. Eighty percent of HIV infections among women worldwide result from sex with their husbands or primary partners. In Zambia, nearly 20 percent of the adult population is living with HIV/AIDS, and the average life expectancy is 38 years. For cultural and socioeconomic reasons that are very difficult to understand, Zambian youth are sexualized at a young age, and the vast majority of youth have had sex before the age of 20.

At Grassroot Soccer, we teach abstinence as the first line of defense, because obviously it is the most effective way of avoiding HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. At Grassroot Soccer, we urge that youth who do choose to be sexually active do so in a mutually faithful relationship, because having multiple partners greatly increases one's chances of contracting HIV/AIDS. And at Grassroot Soccer, we tell children that the correct and consistent use of condoms can reduce their chances of unwanted pregnancy and contracting STIs such as HIV/AIDS. If we left any of these messages out of our curriculum, we would be failing the children of Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, because we would be withholding information that can help them make healthy decisions in the context of their culture and live beyond their fated 38 years.

Unfortunately for GRS, our persistence in teaching condom use limits our access to PEPFAR funding, President Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. PEPFAR is a pledge of $15 billion over five years to help solve the global AIDS problem, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.Three billion of the 15 billion dollars is allotted for prevention programs, to potentially be used by organizations such as Grassroot Soccer. But one third of that money has been earmarked for abstinence-only education, programs that do not mention condom use or other methods of safe sex, under the premise that teaching children under the age of 14 about condoms might encourage them to have sex. That's one billion dollars going to programs that make no mention of condoms, and thus leave out the most immediately relevant aspect of HIV/AIDS prevention information in sub-Saharan Africa. Given Gesh's assertion about sex as a negotiation, and the prevalence of sexual activity typical for Zambian youth, it is easy to see why encouraging prevention programs to withhold information on condoms is ignorant and irresponsible. Teaching about safe sex in addition to abstinence at least gives women and young girls more of a voice in the "negotiation." It makes young men aware of their options and the safety measures available to them.

The HIV Prevention Act of 2007, a bipartisan bill that aims to remove the abstinence only component to PEPFAR funding, is currently floating around congress, and needs support. It is time for Congress to act, and for our Congressmen and women to step up and support the effort to

keep PEPFAR from wasting money on programs that are not properly attuned to the cultures in which they are operating. When we consider the fact that when dealing with HIV/AIDS eduation, information is what saves lives, it is not enough to make judgments and place impositions on moral or ethical grounds.