By Dr Oswald R. Thomas
On December 1, 2012, Antigua and Barbuda and the rest of the Caribbean reflected on what the United Nations has dubbed “World AIDS Day.” Truth be told, we simply cannot celebrate winning the war against HIV/AIDS locally. Our national sentiment about this public health issue is still franchised by fear, guilt, sadness and pain, while the statistics we collect are caricatured by a piecemeal approach to evidence based research. Both our general sentiment and statistical reporting on HIV/AIDS are fundamentally flawed.
Dr Oswald R. Thomas is a Certified and Registered Clinical Hypnotherapist/Psychotherapist with the American Board of Hypnotherapy, the International Association of Counselors and Therapists, and the International Board of Medical and Dental Association. He is founder of the Thomas Center Human Development, Inc. and serves on Bronx Mental Health Committee, served on Community Board #5 in the Bronx, and the Bronx Neighborhood Planning Committee as Chair of the Youth Committee. With a Ph.D. in Psychology, a Master’s in Public Administration, and a Bachelor’s of Professional Studies in Human Services, Dr Thomas is a counseling therapist/ behaviorist, and professor at Metropolitan College of New York.
For example, the national statistics revealed on July 2012 that there were 25 reported new cases of HIV/AIDS. However, this data only accounted for persons who had contact with our public health facilities and personnel; notice more importantly that reported cases from persons who have the means to be screened by private doctors and facilities were not included in our data collection protocols.
We also learn that of the 25 new cases, partners were not notified that their wives, husbands, boyfriends or girlfriends were tested positive for HIV/AIDS. These partners are victims of our public health educational deficit program. They should have been encouraged to come in to be tested. More acutely worrying is the fact that infected partners refused to identify their spouses whose health might be at risk.
If we do the math based on reported HIV/AIDs cases, it is safe to say that we have, as of July 2012, a likely 125 cases of infected persons with HIV/AIDS. Taking a more regional survey of our problem, according to WHO/UNAIDS/UNICEF (2010) “Towards Universal Access: Scaling Up Priority HIV/AIDS Interventions in the Health Sector,” the statistics show that, at the end of 2009, an estimated 240,000 people were living with HIV in the Caribbean. Some 17,000 people were newly infected during 2009, and 12,000 people died from AIDS.
In The Bahamas, more than 3% of the adult population is living with HIV. Higher prevalence rates are found only in sub-Saharan Africa, making the Caribbean the second-most affected region in the world. The most tragic news for the Caribbean is this: half of adults living with the virus are women. Overall, the main route of HIV transmission in the Caribbean is heterosexual sex, much of which is associated with commercial sex. Sex between men is also a major factor in some countries' epidemics.
Cultural and behavioural patterns (such as early initiation of sexual acts, and taboos related to sex and sexuality), gender inequalities, lack of confidentiality, stigmatization and economic need are some of the factors influencing vulnerability to HIV and AIDS in the Caribbean.
When the numerous spate of sexual videos encircling Antigua and Barbuda within the last two months caught the attention of the adult world with more appetizing intrigue than moral outrage, I recognize that we have a much larger problem brewing locally. In fact, I was made to understand that there are some 40 such videos of children in school uniforms who are smiling for their close-up in the local porn world.
This prompted me to investigate this situation. My sample included 25 men ranging from school age to senior citizens. Fifteen of these men indicated that because of the economy they are enjoying their best sex years ever. They further explained that young women in need of financial assistance would approach them with request for “manhood favours”, at a price ranging from as little as EC$10 to EC$30 (US$4 to US$12). These favours include “blow jobs “(oral sex) to “mashing up the pussy using plain wood” (sexual intercourse without condoms). One respondent in his early 70s reported that his sexual mate was only 19-years-old, and proudly boasted that “she had 9 CXC subjects… she pretty bad…. and she is killing me for wan baby.”
In our historical background, sexual promiscuity was prevalent and men wore it as a badge of honour. When king sugar died and cotton became queen in Antigua and Barbuda, sex ruled the day. In fact, the late Father of the Nation, Papa Bird, ran an election campaign in 1976, with the campaign promise to end the “Bruck Foot Industry” and to give women back their dignity.
In those days, it was not uncommon to hear men saying that “dem jus a cum from bruck a foot” or women looking to do the same. I can recall back in 1973 one of our local calypsonians penned a song “Pork Gone Up.” The song was very popular and was even made more popular after the government radio station censored the song from public consumption. Given the double meanings in folkloric genres, “pork” means a woman’s sexual organ. Our attitude of objectifying women, rather than valuing them holistically, could promote dysfunctional behaviours to sexual intercourse, and consequently lead many to practices of promiscuity.
Recently, I was in Guyana attending a non-profit group meeting, when the question of HIV/AIDS came up for discussion. Grassroots and professionals from all stations of life, explored how best to promote safe sex to the wider population. I was particularly moved when a very conscious young lady made a very strong point that the group must become more understanding of specific challenges of single mothers.
She illustrated that if a man is offering a struggling, single mother GY$10,000 (US$49) to have sex without a condom, especially when feeding the kids is foremost on her mind, that single mother will be less concerned about the risks of HIV/AIDS, and she is most likely to do what is in the best interest of her children. She may even venture to pray and ask the Lord for protection and mercy so that she can give her children a hot meal. This not only speaks to the socio-economic factors that underlie HIV/AIDS but the reckless disregard for the wellbeing of women that some men bring to sexual intercourse.
Since most of our Caribbean households are made of single mothers, many of our women face this kind of dilemma on a daily basis, and given increasingly tough economic situation, I am afraid that some women may be moralizing the need to put food on the table against their better judgment, while some men are preying on our most vulnerable females.
To win the war against HIV/AIDS, the Caribbean needs to put a face on HIV/AIDS. Infected persons must be willing to share their stories with others in the form of preventative education, so that the idea that the women, man, boy or girl next door can get it will be firmly communicated.
As Tom Clancy said, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” I dare add that reality is made from the use of commonsense.
Changing our attitude about sex begins with a revised sexual orientation guided by principles of both safe sex and abstinence. This is the only way we will put the "Bruck Foot Industry" out of business.