Event dissects AIDS and gender

By
Friday, March 13, 2009

In a clip from their much-publicized trip to Kenya in 2006, President Obama and his wife Michelle publicly received a test for HIV. It was a display to encourage Kenyan couples to get their HIV status tested together.

The clip, followed by the question “All humans have a right to know their HIV status?” marked the beginning of a presentation by Kathryn Rhine GS on women and HIV testing in Nigeria.

Rhine, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and Daniel Smith, a professor of anthropology, dissected the often undiscussed role of gender in the prevention, detection and treatment of the disease in a lecture, “Gender and Global Health,” last night.

“We tend to be unaware about the way our sexual identities are not just our sexual identities but also are the way we portray ourselves to the world,” Smith said.

The event focused especially on the AIDS virus in Nigeria and the relationship between gender and disease control and prevention.

Smith spoke about his research on the connection between men’s sexual relationships and their attempts to live up to expectations about their masculinity.

In his discussions with Nigerians, Smith said he has attempted to move past common explanations for men’s sexual relations, especially premarital and extramarital ones.

Although he recognized that hormones and ethics are both factors, he found that identity was another main contributor.

According to Smith, Nigerian men connect their sexual identity to their modern identity. The culture in Nigeria connects romance and sexuality with being modern.

Smith cited the media, especially film, for the prevalent conception that premarital sex is a hallmark of a modern man.

He also explained the connection between sexuality and masculinity, in that sex is not just a personal act but also one by which a man might prove himself to fellow males.

Smith said that sexual relations are connected to social class and to education. In a country where there is much “conspicuous consumption,” including gift giving and fashion, sex is another way for a man to construct his public identity.

Like Smith, Rhine did her work in Nigeria. However, her focus was on women. According to Rhine, many Nigerians do not want to be tested for HIV. This is especially true of women for whom being HIV positive can mean ostracism and abuse.

She used the example of “Mary,” a woman who she worked with in Nigeria. Mary’s husband knew his HIV test result but would not share the information with his wife.

According to Smith, one possible reason for this is that HIV has come to be a sign of infidelity. However Mary did not want to be tested herself.

Rhine said this could be because the woman did not want to receive a positive test result and then be blamed for being unfaithful.

Additionally, Mary, who took care of her husband when he was sick, might have seen the effects of what she believed was HIV and not wanted to know that her fate was the same.

The lecture, as a part of the Innovative Approaches to Global Health Lecture Series, was organized by students working with the International Public Health Coalition, a student group at Brown.

“The purpose of our lecture series is to encourage a multi-disciplinary approach to global health,” said Chloe Le Marchand ’09, one of the students who organized the series, in an e-mail to The Herald.

“We hope to offer alternative viewpoints and in doing so, encourage students in different disciplines to think about how their subject of interest impacts global health,” she wrote.