Sexual Myth and the Use of Condoms in African Culture

African traditional healers worsen the AIDS epidemic — but they have an opportunity.

By Pauline Evina-Stangl, R.N., P.H.N.


Abstract

The HIV/AIDS crisis has reached epidemic proportions in Africa. A little-known but significant factor in the spread of the disease is the role of sexual myth and traditional beliefs present in African culture, and the devastating effect it has on women and girls. This article explores the complex cultural dynamics of this issue, specifically the practice of virgin cleansing, and offers recommendations for possible interventions to promote awareness and implementation of safe sex practices.

Keywords: HIV, AIDS, condom, virgin cleansing, Africa


 

A myth is commonly understood as a belief about a people’s history, culture, or way of life, as expressed through stories or rituals, though not necessarily or typically, factual or congruent with modern, especially Western views of reality (Eliade, 1963). The African continent has its own myths, some of which are related to sexuality.
I was born in Cameroon, a small country in central Africa just above of the equator. I was raised by a single mother in a household with six siblings. My mother, like any woman of her generation, did not talk about sex, especially around her children, regardless of their age. As a teenager, I was wild with curiosity about everything, with no particular attachment to the objects of my wonder. Eventually, I became aware of HIV/AIDS and the suffering it caused to the people of Africa.

In 1994, I moved to the United States, worked my way through a college education in nursing, and began to understand the nature of illness as a health care professional. As a registered nurse, I now have a working knowledge of diseases, their modes of transmission, and preventative measures. During my senior year in nursing school, the issue of HIV/AIDS became my primary focus and I have since become a passionate advocate of health care awareness about the disease.

Women in Cameroon, 1969. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Women in Cameroon, 1969. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

From my own observations and from what I’ve read in medical journals, human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), although first discovered in the 1980s, has become an epidemic in the 21st century. The African continent is particularly vulnerable and has been greatly impacted by the disease, and to a significant extent, due to the prevailing sexual myths. Each African country has its own myths about sexuality, most of them created solely for the sexual pleasure of men. In Cameroon, it is not considered acceptable for women to experience sexual enjoyment. To be a “good” woman, you’re expected to lie down, open your legs, and let the man have his way with your body, without questioning it. Among many social problems in Africa, the sexual abuse of children, young girls, and elderly women is the leading cause of the spread of HIV/AIDS. In a culture where women are blamed and victimized again and again for being raped, it is difficult for a young girl to admit to being the victim of sexual assault. I believe that sexual violence is ubiquitous; it occurs in every culture, in all levels of society, and in every country of the world. Statistical data indicates that in Africa, at least one young girl suffers an attempted or a completed rape every 5 minutes (Olshen et al., 2006). The combination of myths and cultural traditions puts all women, including young girls and elderly women, at high risk for HIV/AIDS infection. In Cameroon, one of the most driving, violent forces behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic is the myth behind the transmission of the virus and the use of the condoms.

For many African women, the reality of life is a bleak picture painted with images of impoverished people living in slovenly conditions. Beneath their lives of hardship and subsequent poverty are the roots of misfortune, which cross cultural boundaries. Weakened by a tumultuous history, African women came to be the victims of an ongoing crisis of sexual violence, and have been denied their own natural dignity.

Women in Cameroon, 1969. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Women in Cameroon, 1969. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When I revisited the history of Africa recently, I found that economics have often been influenced by tribal politics and ethnic conflict, which are ultimately responsible for the dire situation in Africa. Traveling through many countries on the African continent, I observed that most of African society bans women from public power. In some cases, if a woman participates in the political life of their country, they are more likely to be rejected by men, to whom they owe their existence, obedience, soul, and mind.

In 2012, when I returned home to Cameroon for a visit, I was sad, terrified, and troubled. I have lost the majority of my childhood friends and relatives due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The belief that HIV/AIDS can be cured by sexual myths such as having sex with a virgin girl (or even with an elderly woman in menopause) was disturbing to me, and I believe that this myth is a likely factor in the sexually promiscuous behavior among some men. During my visit to Cameroon in 2012, I was told that traditional healers are now informing men that sexual intercourse with a virgin girl is effective prevention or can even be a cure for HIV/AIDS! As the virgin cleansing myth is related to the increasing occurrence of HIV/AIDS, I find it crucial to examine and critique the commonly-held views people, especially those of my generation, particularly how they conceptualize and experience this disease. My commitment to this issue has led me to a deeper understanding of why a grown man might seek sex with a young, virgin girl in the context of a formidable AIDS epidemic. I am personally concerned that this “treatment” or “cure” will increase the prevalence of sexual assault and rape among young, innocent girls and further spread HIV/AIDS at an accelerated rate. With respect to my culture, I am not in the position to address the problems of potential rape, increased morbidity, and death among both young and old people in the community. “Virgin cleansing” was identified as a possible reason for the increase of the disease (HIV/AIDS) that no one in Cameroon dared mention by name. In most African countries, and Cameroon is no exception, traditional healers are highly respected in the community. However, they are clearly responsible for perpetuating the myth of virgin cleansing, and I came to see that healers have been advising their HIV-infected patients to seek a virgin for cleansing of any sexual transmitted disease (STD). Young people of my generation express deep concern over men assaulting young girls in the hope of obtaining a cure for HIV/AIDS. My own view is that healers are using metaphors as cognitive tools to manipulate leaders of the communities as a way to convey their messages. Things are not always simple in African communities, and to understand the relationship between knowledge and practice among traditional healers, it is imperative to use metaphors to signify illness and health. This involves more than an examination of beliefs and traditions, which is an analytical approach limited in its ability to explain embodied experience and illness management. After visiting some of the healers in my community, I realized that their theories and practices are not consistent, and vary not only by the interpretation of the healer, but also by the region from which members of an individual ethnic group originated.

Women in Cameroon, 1969. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Women in Cameroon, 1969. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

As a nurse educated in United States, I believe in the validity of evidence-based practice. The prevention of diseases is our primary concern, but before educating my family, friends, and my own African community, I wanted to make sure that they understood the mode of transmission of HIV/AIDS. In Cameroon, my sister, brothers, and my mother listened and paid attention to my medical explanation, and appreciated learning more about the disease, but my friends were skeptical. The community dismissed my rationale and the suggested intervention of using condoms. Their rejection was due to many reasons, including the fact that I did not collaborate with local healers’ interpretation of HIV/AIDS, and because I did not bribe the community leaders.

My attempt to educate my fellow Cameroonians about the importance of the use of condoms did not sit well with the community, particularly the example I gave about safe sex practices in the United States. From what I could gather, the knowledge of diseases and modes of transmission seems to have dissipated among the young people of my generation, even among educated people, and in other ethnic groups as well. The metaphor of dirt and the meaning it holds in relation to illness and illness management is significant with regard to the female reproductive system. The stigma about the use of condoms often leads to the belief that a woman has been intimate with numerous men, which in turn, leads people to suggest that the “dirty womb,” for example, may represent a category of physical illness and infertility. These assumptions cause a narrow understanding and limited perspective for the community to learn and to see clearly the devastation of HIV/AIDS among African people. According to the healers I visited, there are many different ways to treat, cure, or prevent illnesses, but use of condoms is not one of them. Many traditional healers claim that they can cure any disease, whether it is HIV/AIDS, cancer, or malaria. A comprehensive approach to illness, including prevention and treatment, is the key to all cures. African men use many excuses to convince women not to use condoms during sexual contact. Women of my generation express the fear that the use of a “little, plastic bag” may not be healthy for their for the vagina, because if the condom breaks or slips off of the penis, the condom may end up floating inside the vagina and lead to serious health problems. Among Africans, some people assume that Western women are prone to cervical cancer because of their prolonged use of condoms. Some of my close relatives believe that a broken condom can go up into the heart, reaching the throat and cause breathing problems such as choking, or even death. Another group of women believe that the lost condom could become twisted and obstruct blood flow to the body and may lead to high blood pressure or stroke. Such misguided notions explain the widespread fear that exists about the use of condoms. Furthermore, healers believe that monthly menstruation is the way women’s bodies clean out germs, bacteria, and viruses. From the Cameroonian healers’ traditional perspective, the menstruation period is representative of a process by which the female body regularly cleanses itself. According to this view, as menstrual blood passes through the vagina, it expels germs, bacteria, and viruses, and the HIV/AIDS virus is not an exception. They also believe that a young, virgin woman’s body is stronger than a middle-age woman’s body, and that it is capable of sterilizing the HIV/AIDS virus.

Women in Cameroon. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Women in Cameroon. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The belief that sexual intercourse with a virgin can cure a man of HIV/AIDS is embedded in a metaphoric association of sexually active women with wet/dirty vaginas. The virgin cleansing myth holds that a man can purify his blood from sexual transmitted diseases, including the HIV/AIDS virus, through intercourse with a virgin, but that the young, virgin girl is not infected in the process. The broad category of prevention, treatment, and the cure of HIV/AIDS is encompassed within the virgin cleansing process, whereby sexual intercourse with the virgin is also thought to provide a type of immunization against the threat of future HIV infection. Virgin cleansing is believed to have both therapeutic and prophylactic effects. In Cameroon, traditional healers believe that sexual intercourse with a virgin could give a man a certain measure of protection against HIV/AIDS infection and other STDs. Most traditional healers I have spoken to admit that they have recommended a virgin cleansing to all male patients who tested positive for HIV or who were infected with the AIDS virus, thereby acknowledging that a virgin cleansing is the first choice of HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, or a cure.

I have always loved Cameroon and I love my friends and family. When I go home for a visit, it was once a time to spend with my childhood friends, talking about the past, present, and future. Now when I go back for a visit, I spend a lot time visiting cemeteries, hugging orphans, and comforting grieving parents. HIV/AIDS has invaded the country that I love, and my community is now a ghost town. I know how deep cultural beliefs and myths can influence people, and it is very difficult to change people’s minds. But we must do all we can to change the erroneous beliefs and practices that are so damaging and abusive to the women of Africa.

Girl in Cameroon, 1969. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Girl in Cameroon, 1969. By H. Grobe (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

To begin with, our national leaders in Cameroon can help by initiating and promoting sex health education to traditional healers and community leaders, then bringing awareness programs to the schools. The use of condoms should be a subject for every middle school and high school in Africa. The American media has a major influence around the world, including African countries such as Cameroon. The U.S. media should promote the view, especially to African men, that preventing HIV/AIDS is everyone’s responsibility, that anyone in the world can contract it who doesn’t use protection, and that condoms are a simple and efficient safeguard against sexually-transmitted diseases. Television shows and movies should depict the use of condoms. Popular actors could focus on education and prevention measures. Television commercials could show how important it is to use a condom during sex, and that may be a better way to promote safe sex among young and middle-age African men. The same goes for women: A strong, popular woman could empower African women by promoting safe sex and by telling them that it’s okay for a woman to ask a man to use condoms during sex.

The HIV/AIDS crisis has taken an immense toll on the lives of the African people, and continues to decimate the communities affected by this pernicious disease. Although traditional tribal ways of life are worthy of respect and honor, the practice of virgin cleansing is abusive and inhumane, not to mention based on erroneous beliefs about disease transmission and treatment. Only by well-informed health education and community awareness augmented by efficacious intervention policies can this misogyinistic mistreatment be brought to and end, and restore the inherent human dignity to the women of Africa.


 

Pauline Evina-Stangl

 

Pauline Evina-Stangl was born and raised in Yaounde, Cameroon. Immigrating to the United States with her husband in 1994, she completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing at the Dominican University of California in 2009. A Registered Nurse and certified Public Health Nurse, she has worked at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, CA as an LVN, and currently is on the staff of the Oakland Unified School District as a School Nurse. Her interests lie in public health services and as an advocate for HIV/AIDS education and awareness, especially in Africa.

 


References
Eliade, M. (1963). Myth and reality. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Olshen, E., Hsu, K., Woods, E. R., Harper, M., Harnisch, B., & Samples, C. L. (2006).

Use of human immunodeficiency virus postexposure prophylaxis in adolescent sexual assault victims. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160(7), 674-80

2 Responses to “Sexual Myth and the Use of Condoms in African Culture

  • Pauline Stangl
    2 years ago

    Job well done

  • Gilles Degremont
    2 years ago

    Remarquable compréhension de la difficulté à éduquer la population quand la coutume est toujours prépondérante . Un grand bravo à toi Pauline pour ton travail présent et à venir dans ce cher Cameroun.

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