Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Damn Your Traditional Values

People can often be heard moaning about the disintegration of traditional family values (and Christian values, etc), especially in the context of discussions about HIV transmission. In the old days, children respected their elders, they paid attention to what they said, they discussed their relationship and marriage plans with their family, they didn't have sex before marriage, etc. We've probably all heard it in some form or other.

But there's a bit of a contradiction in being told to place absolute trust in people who can sometimes become part of the problem, such as parents, teachers or employers. HIV programmes often aim to instill in young people the belief in their own self efficacy, the belief that they can decide when, where and with whom to have sex. Yet sometimes, the person who is demanding sex from them is a parent, a relative, a teacher or someone else who is supposed to be in a position of responsibility.

Also, people in positions of responsibility, religious leaders and political leaders, for example, are telling people how to behave and how to live their lives. Either people have a degree of autonomy or they do what they are told. Personally, I think respect is due to some people and not to others. Children (and adults) need the ability to judge who is entitled to respect. They need to see that respect is not always due to people just because of their position. They need to be able to decide for themselves what to do and what to avoid doing.

Politicians often abuse their position, police take the law into their own hands, parents do many things that are harmful to their children, religious leaders often lie to suit their church's dogma, adults often abuse younger people, strong people often take advantage of weak people. There is no rule of thumb about who is to be respected and who is not. Such rules of thumb lead people into dangerous positions.

I met a young Tanzanian woman recently who told me that she almost had to drop out of college because she failed four out of seven of her exams. She was sure that she had only done one exam badly but to get a recheck she had to pay a lot of money for each one. She approached each teacher and discussed it. One of them suggested that if he were to do this 'favour' for her, she would need to think about a 'favour' she could do for him. She said she would prefer to pay.

She was lucky that she works as a volunteer HIV counsellor. She was also lucky that she had the money. As it is, she cannot afford to live in student accommodation and needs to stay with relatives. So she is lucky that she has relatives that are close to her college. Many people would not be so lucky.

This is not an isolated incident. I came across an article recently about children who are coerced into having sex and even long term relationships with their (already married and sometimes HIV positive) teachers. The teachers often agree to give them money or to pay for their schooling. Girls who become pregnant are excluded from school and that's often the end of the agreement. They end up much worse off than they were before.

To make matters worse, parents and guardians sometimes encourage these relationships because they can't afford to pay school related expenses and fees. The children are let down by those closest to them, the people they are supposed to treat with respect. They are being abused emotionally, sexually and physically by people who are teaching them to be submissive towards their parents and teachers.

Children must be very confused. The people who are telling them to respect their elders are abusing them. The people who are telling them to make decisions for themselves are lying to them and undermining their ability to make decisions. The people who tell them that lying is wrong also tell them lies. I met a Catholic priest here recently who asked me if it was really true that there are tiny holes in condoms that allow the HIV virus to pass through. I told him to check with the WHO (World Health Organization), who have a lot more experience with health and reproduction that the Catholic Church.

It's very disobedient of him to refuse to follow the teachings of his church. But if there is a god, I'm sure the priest's decision will be understood.


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