Monday, September 27, 2010

Knowing How to Say NO

“Why can we not say no to our men?  We African women need to learn from Western women how to say no.”  

          This was part of a dialogue I had with a Botswana woman during a government sponsored event – a candle-lit vigil to remember those who have perished from AIDS.  I was invited to speak about youth and HIV/AIDS, in particular the efforts to prevent HIV transmission.  The highest prevalence of HIV infected persons exists in sub-Saharan Africa, with Botswana being the 2nd highest country in the world, percentage-wise, after Swaziland.  There are numerous strategies in place in Botswana to mitigate the spread of HIV/AIDS.  Naturally, the primary focus is on educating people about the disease.  This strategy has been put in place by the major Western donors, including ACHAP (Bill and Melinda Gates foundation) and USAID (United States Agency for International Development).   

            But with prevalence rates increasing, many of us are left wondering why.  Why are they increasing with all the education initiatives in place?  Education is simply not enough.  There are deep rooted sociological, psychological and behavioural factors at play.  And while I fully support empowerment through education, there is more that we are missing in our efforts to end the spread of HIV/AIDS.  Botswana's goal is to end all new infections by 2016, an ambitious goal to say the least.  

Then I think back to the conversation I had with this Botswana woman.  Now I have had many such conversations with women in Botswana, but this particular conversation made me reflect upon was the power of ‘no’.  In a sense the word itself is often seen in a negative light, as a refusal.  However, in North America, we women are afforded the choice of saying no to a man.  Not that this always occurs, but we can use it in light of making choices.  It’s my right to say no:  I know it and I believe it.  This does not guarantee that it will be respected, but I still know how to say ‘no’.  In Botswana, things are not so simple.  A woman saying ‘no’ challenges the deep-rooted patriarchal system that exists at all levels of social and inter-personal interactions.  

It was Botswana women themselves that told me they did not know how to say no.  Now Botswana is not the only place in this world where patriarchy prevails, but it is one country I can speak about given my experience working there.  Saying no to sex denies a man his right to pleasure, and for many women, it goes against the ‘duty’ of satisfying a man.  This touches on cultural norms, values and behaviours that are so entrenched in society that they are hard to break.  Changing them will take time.  We cannot assume education can be the instant fix.  Education about the severity of the disease, how it is transmitted and the protective measures one can take to prevent infection is the start but by no means the quick or ultimate solution.       

If a man does not want to wear a condom, we can’t make him.”  

 This was another common thing I would hear in conversations with women.  The same problem would apply to women wearing the female condom…if a man refuses to have sex with her wearing it, then what? In Botswana, a woman's right to say ‘no’ to unsafe sex is not recognized or normalized. 

 A woman’s ability to say ‘no’ is only one component in HIV/AIDS prevention.  It is easy to argue that educated women can make more informed choices.  I agree to an extent. But, what would you say if I told you these conversations were with the educated elite in Botswana?  These women were government officials!    

Priya Saibel works as a consultant on International Development and is completing her M.A. in Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University.

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