Science - October 20, 2010

African women show resilience in coping with AIDS

Text:
Joris Tielens

Poverty is not just a consequence but also a cause of AIDS. But AIDS orphans are proving more resilient than was generally believed. These are some of the findings of African women researchers at Wageningen University.

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Attending funerals to help you survive the AIDS epidemic. This proves to be a successful strategy for rural African women in Ivory Coast, who keep up their social network this way, says Mariame Maiga in the PhD thesis with which she graduated on 14 October. Many development projects focus on women because they suffer the most from the AIDS epidemic. Women are often seen as victims, but this overlooks the capabilities and creativity they show in coping with the epidemic, concludes Maiga. By keeping up their social network, for example. Earlier research by Carolyne Nombo in Tanzania suggested that the AIDS death rate is too much for the social safety net provided by African solidarity. Many Tanzanians have lost so many relatives and acquaintances that their networks have ceased to function. In Ivory Coast, however, the great cultural importance of funerals puts tremendous social pressure on women to contribute both money and work, and this has helped the networks to survive the AIDS epidemic.
Strengthening women's position
Both studies are part of a research programme about AIDS, women and food security in Africa (African Women Leaders in Agriculture and Environment, AWLAE), led by Anke Niehof, professor of Consumers and Households. A general conclusion drawn from the programme is that women are hit harder by AIDS than men. Partly because they have less say over their sexual behaviour, but also because they have less access to land and resources than men do. Worsening poverty and gender inequality are not just a result of AIDS, but also appear to be causing the epidemic to spread faster.
The programme has come up with some unexpected results too. It was assumed that AIDS orphans faced added difficulties because their parents had not been able to pass on their farming knowledge. But PhD student Rose Fagbemissi concludes that AIDS orphans in Benin are more resilient than was thought.  Because they are often responsible for an entire household, they gain more knowledge of crops and pest control than non-orphans, out of sheer necessity.

All 19 PhD students in the programme are African women. Many of them received a better job at their university or research centre in Africa after getting their PhD in Wageningen.

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