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The Gambia: AIDS & Culture - 2002-02-28

In the Gambia, the government in collaboration with the United Nations is conducting a study on social and cultural practices that could contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS in that country. From the Gambian capital Banjul, reporter Pa Nderry M'Bai, has more on the story.

The social-cultural study on HIV/AIDS prevention initiative is the first of its kind in the nation's efforts to fight the pandemic. It's aim is to assess the scale of traditional practices and whether they contribute to the spread of the disease. Health workers and youth groups are being trained as researchers.

Amadou Sowe is a public Health officer. He explains the need for such a training program, “ Why we wanted to conduct this study is that HIV is on the increase in the Gambia, though some parts within the Gambia, we have seen a decline of HIV. But in some areas we have seen a verse increase in number of people infected. As you know we have been in the media, community sensitizing people.” He said, “So many people are aware of the HIV virus in the Gambia, but still yet we don't know why people are being infected after disseminating the information.”

Currently, over 8000 Gambians are said to be living with the AIDS virus. During the 10 days of research, health workers will be questioning people about cultural and traditional practices, such as female circumcision or female genital mutilation and wife inheritance. Participant Amadou Sowe vehemently criticizes FGM saying it is harmful to the lives of children. “Yes, one or two examples are, if you look at some of the areas, when we talked about circumcision, traditionally you will see that 10 or 15 children being circumcised by using one instrument, a razor blade or a knife,” he said. “IF you looked at wife inheritance also in the Gambia, or in Africa, wife inheritance is some thing tradition. Some body may die you don't know what kills that person and then the wife will be inherited by the younger brother or the elder brother within the family. If that person is been killed by HIV/AIDS obviously the guy who inherited that wife might died of that.”

Observers here say the research team may likely face a tougher challenge in the countryside where FGM is said to be common. About 80 percent of the Gambian population live in areas where female circumcision is practiced, according to research conducted by the group, The Gambia Committee against Traditional Practices. Those engaged in the practice say they are doing it because of cultural reasons and vow to continue to circumcise their children. They say it is being done to protect the child’s virginity.

But participant Kalilu Njie says they are ready to face challenges. She said, “Yes, that is one of our roles. Our role is to at least collect information that will help the ministry to plan a way forward in order to help the illiterate population or our parents to know the reasons why the genital mutilation can be harmful to our children.” Ms Njie added, “As we are all aware that the instrument that have been used by this mothers to mutilate the daughter could cause HIV and this disease is threatening millions of people.”

Sex work, which is common in the Gambia, is also high on the agenda. IT is often blamed for the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country. But Haddy Njie, a staffer at the National Aids Control program, who is also attached to the sex workers intervention program tells VOA that efforts are underway to tackle the matter. “We are planning to get them out of their work,” she said, “ by providing income and in fact we went to Dakar, we took one of the sex workers whom we termed as a peer health educator. So we trained them in order for them to stop the sex work and engage in trade. And so far since we started the project we have sex workers who left the work. Some are now engage in saloon work, hair dressing. Some are now businesswomen. Some are married.”

Those who are being trained to conduct the research say their findings will go a long way in eradicating risky traditional practices in the Gambia. For VOA, Africa, this is Pa Nderry M'Bai, reporting from Banjul, The Gambia.