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19 July 2004
AIDS A Sign Of Masculinity For Some African Men
by George Atkinson

Attitudes towards AIDS in rural Africa are complex and often contradictory, says researcher Dr Amy Kaler from the University of Alberta. Kaler investigated the ways that young men in rural southern Malawi, Africa talk about HIV and their own perceptions of risk. Her study appears in the journal Demographic Research. In communities in southern Malawi, where HIV prevalence is estimated at 13%, young men are frequently conflicted as to whether they will be able to avoid contracting AIDS. Some say that they do not believe they will be alive in five years' time, while others say that by exercising self-discipline and relying on inner strength, they will be able to live out a good life.

Kaler says that the relationship between AIDS and masculinity is more complex than has been previously thought. The behaviours that put young men at risk for HIV - being sexually active with lots of partners - are the same behaviours that give men high status among their peers. Young men often boasted to their friends about their likelihood of being HIV positive, as a way of boasting about the number of girlfriends they had slept with. One man went so far as to correct another by saying that he had slept with all the desirable girls in one particular village so if anybody is going to be the cause of an AIDS outbreak it would be him.

In many settings, AIDS is associated with shame and guilt but in other contexts such as male homosocial groups, the virus may take on different meanings, said Kaler. "Given the relative homogeneity of masculinity scripts around the world, with emphasis on both heterosexual activity and taking risks, I doubt that these Malawian men are unique." Kaler also found that for many men, their beliefs about the virulence of AIDS are not consistent with current medical understanding of the disease.

"They assume, first, that it is everywhere and will eventually kill everyone and second, that AIDS is extremely infective and that if one has been exposed to the virus, one's days are numbered. This understanding of AIDS risk may be used to justify continuing such risky sexual behaviour as having multiple partners or not using condoms - this behaviour is no longer dangerous if one believes he has already contracted the virus," said Kaler.

The fact that so many claim that they are HIV positive and appear to use this belief as a justification for continued unsafe sex has major implications for future HIV prevention education, says Kaler.

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