Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Consequences of a False and Insulting Portrayal of Africans

Presenting a false and insulting portrayal of tribal people is, as Stephen Corry argues in the New Internationalist blog, inherently unethical. And the consequences can indeed be far-reaching. Corry lists "murders, dispossessions and long-term abuses of tribal peoples" which are "underpinned by racist thinking". Corry is attacking a TV program which portrayed an Amazonian tribe as "sex-obsessed, mean and savage".

So I hope followers of Corry will agree that presenting a false and insulting portrayal of the people of an entire continent is similarly unethical, though on a far larger scale. And it certainly has far reaching consequences. The HIV industry's portrayal of Africans as sex-obsessed, mean and savage, and their perpetuation of demeaning and stereotypical views, is the grounding for global HIV policy and HIV spending in African countries.

In fact, the theft of African land and resources by governments and corporations on a massive scale is just one of the consequences of the HIV industry's fabrications, just as it is for the kind of tribal groups that Corry writes about.

Because African men are effectively depicted as rapists and child molesters and African women as defenceless (but money-mad) victims, the view that HIV is almost always heterosexually transmitted in African countries, and hardly ever anywhere else, is now the mainstream view.

Take for example almost every HIV 'prevention' program that has ever been considered for Africa: Abstinence, Being faithful and using Condoms (ABC), mass male circumcision, sexually transmitted infection (STI) reduction, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), microbicides, treatment as prevention (sometimes called 'TraP', apparently), conditional cash transfers, and I'm sure there are others.

Almost all these prevention programs target people thought to be (and sometimes actually) highly sexually active, even though HIV is relatively difficult to transmit through penile-vaginal sex. These programs even target people who are not at all sexually active because African sexuality is thought to be so pervasive, no one escapes, not even the very young and the very old.

And at the same time, non-sexual transmission routes, such as through contaminated blood transfusions, reused syringes and needles or various other medical precedures, which are both common and extremely efficient at transmitting HIV, receive next to no attention or funding.

This is not to say there are no social problems in African countries. A recent article finds that there are problems with use of porn videos, illegal alcohol, unprotected sex, coercive sex, rape and various other things involving teenagers in a part of Kenya where HIV prevalence is highest.

But there is little evidence that these problems, which are very serious and do need to be addressed, are particularly closely related to the HIV epidemic there.

HIV is sometimes transmitted sexually and some types of sexual behavior are more risky than others. All of these problems need to be addressed, whether HIV transmission is involved or not. But this is not a reason to ignore non-sexual transmission, which could be taking place in the very STI clinics and health facilities that people end up being sent to. Vulnerable people need protection, but not just from sexual risks or even from the risk of HIV, alone.

It's always worrying when the World Bank tries to reassure the public of anything. So their article entitled "Cash Payments Can Reduce HIV/Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa―New" should set off alarms.

Improving education, health, infrastructure, economic circumstances and the like is clearly desirable. But when the 'solution' comes from the institution that has spent decades giving out loans to struggling economies on condition that they reduce public spending on all those same goods, why should we accept their findings about such 'conditional cash transfers'?

The bank feels that women and girls especially are having unsafe sex in return for money because they are poor (and uneducated and suffer various other kinds of social deprivation), so they wish to address this problem by paying them to have safe sex, or even to have no sex.

But how about ensuring that people with preventable and treatable STIs get the education and treatment they need to avoid these diseases and prevent them from becoming endemic, as they currently are in many countries, not just in AFrica? How about improving people's economic circumstances, or simply ceasing to compromise people's economic circumstances so that they no longer live in highly risky environments?

The World Bank paying girls to attend schools in an education system that has been ransaked under the bank's auspicies and health facilities that have been rendered extremely risky precisely because of the bank's own strictures about spending, investment, recruitment and training, is utterly revolting, as well as highly insulting to the African victims of this travesty.

For Africans, especially in high HIV prevalence countries, the consequences of their false and insulting protrayal as sex-obsessed, mean and savage could not be more extreme: HIV positive people are reviled and patronized, while they suffer and die from a preventable virus; and HIV negative people continue to face avoidable risks merely because addressing the risks would draw attention to the pernicious lies that underpin global HIV policy.


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