by Rebecca Whitehouse
Have you ever considered that it is the empowerment of women that is causing the spread of HIV/AIDS in women living in developing countries? Probably not, but let me try to explain.
It is viewed as common knowledge that the high rates of HIV/AIDS in developing countries is due to the obvious gender inequality between men and women. However, in 2004 Margrethe Silberschmidt, a researcher in Public Health issues, presented a deviation from this typical explanation. The spread of HIV/AIDS is seen in both urban and rural areas and Silberschmidt uses the examples of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Kisii, Kenya respectively.
In Kisii, before the Industrial Revolution, men owned land and women worked on it with the profit going to the owner rather than the workers. This made sure women were dependent on men for survival. However, the Industrial Revolution ruined Kisii as jobs in the rural sector disappeared. In Dar es Salaam in 1978, 84% of men had formal employment but an economic transformation in the mid-1980s created mass unemployment. In both cases men lost their jobs and therefore their status as the ‘breadwinners’. Women soon realised that the household could not survive without them and so began taking up jobs in the informal sector such as bake sales and market vending. Despite women consequently earning a higher wage than men, husbands refused to give up their role as head of the household.
This affected the male ego as a reason for their superiority had been removed. As women’s autonomy grew, men felt they were losing control of their households and turned to alcohol, extra-marital partners and aggression to compensate for their sense of humiliation and lack of self-esteem. Their masculinity had been taken away and they wanted it back. This masculinity that had been removed was their role-based identity, something imposed upon them by culture and society, but they could still strengthen their existential identity through sex and violence. These typical ‘masculine’ features were seen as a way to gain back control and authority. Therefore these men became violent towards their wives, including forcing them to engage in sexual activity. However, as they were also turning to other women for sex in order to assert their masculinity, the rate of HIV/AIDS increased rapidly and spread across a larger population.
Hence, men could be perceived as being victims of their role of the dominant gender. Both the male existential and role-based identity is that of power and domination and to lose these things is to become less of a man. So, a way of perceiving the growing rate of HIV/AIDS in women in developing countries is through their own empowerment, threatening the role of men and these men then trying to reassert their authority. It may not be a nice thought, but it is a theory that is out there in our big, bad world.