Conformity is a virtue in African societies where adhering to socially prescribed forms of behavior comes as second nature to its peoples, especially women, who transfer these norms and values to their offspring.
For the greatest part, women keep the cultural edifice intact by ensuring that their sons and daughters internalize prescribed gender roles, abide by the norms of the societies they live in – most of them unquestioningly following the path set by their mothers, grandmothers and ancestry throughout the ages.
For African peoples, culture is the supreme authority governing how members of a society conduct themselves and what they ought to revere.
Culture is more than a social construct; it is a patriarchal product privileging men and often pushing African women to the margins as men govern them both in public and private life.
Yet the status quo largely goes unchallenged and women invariably model themselves against their predecessors; having internalized the deeply imbedded cultural values of subservience that inform their worldview, perceptions of self and notions of identity.
In a time of HIV, women’s vulnerability is exacerbated by their inability to confront and challenge social norms – norms that are so deeply ingrained in them that they have become second nature – such that breaking with them seems almost unnatural.
It is the idea of crossing the boundaries that they have been taught to live within that is daunting, regardless of their status, level of education, profession, social standing and other distinction; women revert to and assume gender roles they inculcated in their formative years.
The marital institution has been identified as a major site of women oppression as it is the space in which gender roles, social expectations and power relations between men and women play out.
Seeking to arrest the spread of HIV without interrogating the power dynamics that play out between men and women in relationships and as they interact in society as a whole would be an exercise in futility.
To quote from Gloria Steinem, “the first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn – but to unlearn.”
To examine the assumptions that have been taken for granted about the natural place of women as subordinates to their male counterparts requires us to acknowledge that our culture is neither perfect nor infallible – an admission that rigid traditionalists are reluctant to make.
This is because culture has for a long time, benefitted from the assumption that it is cast in stone, immutable and therefore sacrosanct.
We are persuaded that we have no option but to conform because any deviation from the norm would constitute a form of sacrilege.
Because we have come to regard culture as a set of never-changing mores, it seems unthinkable that we should seek to challenge these long held practices yet challenge them we must – if we are to stem the tide of HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa.
SAfAIDS Executive Director, Lois Chingandu said there needed to be a balance in the way people approach and address cultural issues, appreciating what is beautiful and boldly confronting that which is harmful.
“If a culture starts to kill its own people then there is something wrong and we must not hesitate to challenge it,” she said.
But to challenge any aspect of a culture, to conclude that certain components of it are no longer helpful makes it easier for people to question everything they have long held as being altruistic.
Harnessing traditional leaders and patriarchal societies to engage in the process of re-shaping some cultural conventions will prove difficult as this would entail that every one of them examines the beliefs that have for years shaped, influenced and informed their perceptions of life.
The clarion call to “unlearn” deeply imbedded notions, to “unlearn” value systems that are ingrained within a society and to “unlearn” stereotypical gender roles assigned to men and women – is one that may find no takers among people who have been raised to view conformity as a virtue and to perceive deviance as a vice.
For what keeps the married abused woman from walking out of the door even when she has the means to fend for herself – is the invisible chain of conformity; she is trained from childbirth to believe that marriage defines her and that without it, she is diminished.
What makes the reluctant man marry his brother’s widow even when he is able to decline – is the invisible chain of conformity; he is trained from birth to understand that he must uphold the customs of his people and failure to do so, diminishes him as well.
So in changing the river’s flow, HIV programmers may find that they must confront deep-rooted beliefs of superiority, dominance and identity as culture permeates into the sexual interactions of communities because conformity could leave people chained to a status quo that spells imminent doom.