Widow Cleansing and Widow Inheritance – Harmful Cultural Practices Stopping PMTCT

Today, the world is well aware of the facts and figures that surround the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While the level of realization might vary from society to society, it would be very hard to find any village that does not have the most rudimentary knowledge about the disease. There is a global mobilization against it and to some extent there are major victories to date. But, one aspect of the disease is only recently getting the attention it requires: the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV/AIDS, and specifically, the relation it has with the harmful cultural or traditional practices that are prevalent in almost all of the countries that are hardest-hit by the disease.

If we were to take a look at the countries that had, or still have, the highest infection rates, it would be abundantly clear that there is a prevalence of harmful traditions that are bestowed upon the girls and women of these countries. It would also be clear that there is a relationship between these traditions and the eventual infection of children born to HIV-positive women.

One good example is a traditional practice that is widespread in central, southern and to some extent, eastern Africa. It is called ‘widow cleansing’. The basic idea here is that when a woman’s husband dies, she is forced by tradition to have sexual intercourse with a close relative of her deceased husband to exorcise his spirit out of her.  If she refuses, she can be blamed for every person that dies in her village and that can have fatal consequences by means of accusations of witchcraft – which usually ensue a death sentence.

Now, when the ‘cleansing’ happens, no one takes the time to make sure that the relative is HIV negative, and that is also assuming that she is HIV negative to begin with. The sex is unprotected, as it is believed that there should be full body contact, and can lead to HIV infection and pregnancy at the same time.

Another example can be the common practice that is prevalent in and around West Africa called ‘widow inheritance’. In this case, when a woman loses her husband she is immediately married off to her brother-in-law. The tradition was originally put in place to make sure that the woman and her children did not suffer if they were poor or, in the case that the deceased was wealthy, to ensure that whatever riches that were left by the deceased stayed within the family.

In many cases, the woman is not tested for HIV. And in the cases that her husband has infected her before he succumbed to the disease, she too has a high chance of transmitting the disease to her new husband while also becoming pregnant and eventually giving birth to an HIV positive child.

These are just two examples of harmful traditional practices that directly contribute to the mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV/AIDS. Fighting them not only helps prevent the spread of HIV, it also helps in the fight against MTCT.

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