Category: Issues

Lessons to be learned

PCV Suzanne Capehart tackles tough issues with her students in a discussion about homosexuality and homosexual rights

By Katrina Shankle

In Benin there are plenty of misconceptions about homosexuality. For many volunteers, it is a subject we want to broach but a difficult one as these conversations are not always welcome in our communities. A volunteer in the Alibori North of Benin, Suzanne Capehart was able to take on the subject with her homologue and a group of students and has shared her experience.

To open the session, Suzanne started by simply just explaining to the group of students homosexuality as basically as possible: the concept of men being attracted to men and women to women. During this portion of the session she spent a lot of time emphasizing the point that being homosexual is not a lifestyle choice nor a disease- two commonly believed myths- and instead something with which you are born, like a personal trait. Students had much to say about this as many came in believing that it was a disease. A handful of students were concerned that not only was homosexuality a disease but that it was a contagious one, and as Suzanne came from a place they knew homosexuals to come from, they feared she was a carrier that could potentially infect them. This idea is not uncommon. In many countries across Africa, homosexuality is seen as an import of colonialism. People believe nonheteronormative sexualities did not exist before Europeans came to Africa.

Students were also generally confused about the sexual nature of homosexual relationships and some were confused about reproduction in regards to same sex relationships. Some students believed that someone could still produce a baby in a same sex relationship. Suzanne explained that there are many ways for a same-sex couple to become parents but that a baby could not be produced without an egg and a sperm. In this part of the conversation she explained briefly the nature of same-sex sexual relationships. Interestingly, she found that students were far more comfortable accepting and understanding the nature of women engaging in a same sex relationship but when discussing male same sex relationships the students were much more disbelieving and disapproving.

Finally, Suzanne addressed gay rights and gay pride in the United States, sharing experiences of gay pride days with the students. She said this was an interesting subject for the students as Benin has a “don’t ask don’t tell”- like culture, the idea of people being so public about their sexual orientation and expressing a pride in their community was surprising to them.

These conversations are so important to have. While some or even most students may ultimately reject what Suzanne explained to them, it is important to share a different perspective and encourage, the youth in particular, to be more inquisitive and accepting. That being said, it is not an easy thing to do and it can come with consequences. For Suzanne, many of the students she held the session with believed she was gay for discussing it with them. This raised concerns for her with dealing with students’ families that may not be accepting of their students having a gay teacher or even a teacher who teaches them a view on homosexuality that is rejected by society. She and her homologue had to work to try to dispel these misconceptions about her personal life to protect her ability to continue to work in the community. There is obviously a tricky balance with much of the work we do in respecting beliefs and pushing forward thinking, but Suzanne’s story is ultimately one of success. She has reported at least some members of her community trying harder to at least be respectful despite their personal views when referring to homosexuals. Despite having to explain her own sexuality, the community has moved on and she managed to be a very effective volunteer while still being able to push the envelope with her community through sharing her own opinions and experiences.

Manly Men

The tenets of machismo – aggression, strength and manliness – define what it means to be a man through the subordination of women and homosexuals

By Katrina Shankle

Machismo means manliness, chauvinism or virility. When describing a culture it is referring to a societal ethos of exerting aggressive masculinity with a dogmatic view of what manliness means; it is the by-product of a paternalistic society. These kinds of values are often troubling for women and homosexuals as gender roles are inflexible, and a divergence from the norm is viewed as taboo.

Generally when using the word machismo to describe a culture it is in reference to Latin American countries (with the word’s origin in Spanish). In reality, the number of countries with elements of a machismo culture is vast, with the key ingredients to this kind of culture only being a male-dominated society with very traditional views of gender roles.

In these societies, a variance from a typical “strong” male character is a weakness. The stereotype of homosexual men perpetuated by these societies is that they are all effeminate, weak or submissive, and in this manner are viewed as a second class.

So powerful is this idea of an aggressive male in some Latino cultures, that they have adopted a view that even a man who takes on a relationship with another man is not necessarily homosexual. In Colombia this is characterized by the expression “soy tan macho que me cojo otro hombre” (I’m so macho that I fuck other men). In this way, in Latino cultures, the concept of machismo hasn’t only created a hierarchy among the gay and straight but also among the gay community.

These attitudes are very obviously detrimental to society. The stigmatization of what it means to be homosexual fuels violence against individuals and the gay community as a whole.

According to Avert, in 2005 it was estimated that a gay man was killed every two days in Latin America because of his sexuality. These attitudes force people to conform to heteronormativity, keeping people closeted, even participating in heterosexual marriages to avoid suspicion. These views impact people’s social lives, professional lives and their ability to participate in society. For a gay man, his sexual orientation becomes his sole identifier.

The prominent role of machismo tenets in the demonization of homosexuality among men has had an interesting effect on gay women. Not being affected by the same constraints of machismo ideology in relation to their sexual orientation, it has been seen in particular in Latino cultures, that gay women are far less visible with less misfortunes of a reactionary community. Suspicions of a woman being a lesbian are far less common than suspicions of a man being gay, a woman can remain unmarried, she can live with another woman and the perception is generally that she is frigid. However, women do not get off unscathed, the constraints of a machismo culture put women gay or straight in a secondary role making it harder to find jobs and exert independence.

Machismo ideals are not typically at work alone. In most cases the dominance of a religion with damaging views toward homosexuality further limits the support network of those ostracized by their community. While in most Latino cultures these systems of values are only embedded within social norms and values, many African nations (37) still outlaw homosexuality and in a very few the “act” of homosexuality can lead to life imprisonment or the death penalty, in these societies the homosexual community finds little reprieve within any corner of society. A machismo ethos only points to the malady of a society perpetuated in both its religious tenants, social norms and in some contexts the laws.

A Fight Yet to Be Won

Despite the legality of homosexuality, Beninese members of the LGBT community face discrimination and homophobia as part of their daily lives.

By Emily Becker

As a member of the LGBT community in Benin, Jean* is used to hearing the horror stories about being gay in a country where, although technically not illegal, homosexuality is generally not accepted. As the president of the Hirondelle Club, an association of LGBT Beninese that meets every Monday in Cotonou, Jean has met individuals who have been driven out of their homes after being seen kissing another man, individuals who have been victims of assaults both physical and verbal and in extreme situations, individuals who have ended their lives over their sexuality.

“We do not choose our sexual orientation,” said Jean. “They did not choose to be straight. We did not choose to be gay. This is our life, our identity.”


Despite the fact that neither homosexuality nor homosexual acts are illegal in Benin, laws rarely change the opinions of individuals. In Benin, like many other countries in Africa, homosexuality is seen as an abomination by churches, or as an import from the colonial influence of Europe.

“Many people believe homosexuality is either an act of witchcraft or it is imported from the Western world,” said Jacques, a member of the LGBT community in Cotonou who relocated to Benin from France in 1990. “The strong religious influence is also a challenge to face, as many preachers still reject homosexuality during their speech at churches or mosques.”

For those who feel comfortable coming out to others or who are looking for a safe place to meet other members of the LGBT community, several organizations and support groups exist in major cities like Cotonou and Parakou. More than ten meet on a regular basis, and the French Cultural Center hosts a monthly discussion in order to reduce ignorance and homophobia.

Unfortunately, Jacques believes that, for now, the safest way to live as a gay man in Beninese society is not attract attention to oneself or sexuality.

“We give advice to the most extravagant members of the community (mostly effeminate) and ask them to go out dressed normally and change their clothes while they are in a closed area,” he said. “However, this advice is hardly followed as many think they want to live their life, come hell or high water. [As a member of the LGBT community] I must always remember that I can be the subject of rejection, mockery or insult. I therefore always pay attention every time I go out with friends, making sure we should not be the subject of general attention.”

*Names have been changed

African female athletes stand out as models of empowerment

By Katrina Shankle

“Half of running is training your body. The other half is training your mind.” That’s what I remember from training for my first marathon. At some point your mind says, there is no way you can keep doing this for another 12 miles, it tells you that you’re tired, you’re thirsty, that if you just stop you can slow your heart rate back down and catch your breath. At mile 24 you hit the wall, you muscles start to tense, your mind fatigues, literally your entire body is trying to put the brakes on what you are trying to accomplish; and yet we don’t stop. That’s the mental part, where you keep saying “just a little further”, you remind yourself of how good it’s going to feel when it is over and that victory awaits you. With the GenEq Tour du Benin fundraising run around the corner, certainly Peace Corps runners have begun gearing up: increasing their mileage, perfecting their playlists and modifying their diets. This article is dedicated to the other part of training, offering up the awe-inspiring stories of four larger-than-life female African athletes. Any one of these stories should offer enough inspiration to help push through the mental roadblocks along the run.

Tirunesh DibabaEthiopia, Long distance track athlete


Dibaba should win an award for just the sheer number of records she has broken. With an extensive number of wins under her belt, her most noteworthy achievements are that she is the 5000-meter world record holder at 14 minutes 11.15 seconds (at the Oslo Golden League 2008 meeting), the current World and Olympic 10,000 meter champion, and winner of five world track titles as well has five world cross country titles.

In 2001, at age 15 she competed in her first fully international outdoor track event at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships; she came in 5th place. In 2003 she won the silver medal in the 5000-meter race at the Afro-Asian games, and then went on later that year to become the youngest athlete to ever win an individual gold medal at the World Championships. Then, at the 2005 Championships, she broke another record by becoming the first woman to win both the 10,000 m and 5,000 m at the same championship. Again, in 2007 at the Championships she won the 10,000 m, becoming the only woman to win back-to-back titles. In 2013 she ran and won the 10,000 m in Moscow, making this her fifth individual World Championship gold medal, the most ever by a female athlete.

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, she placed third, again breaking a record by becoming the youngest medalist for Ethiopia in the Olympics. Ironically, although she broke a record, this was viewed as a disappointment as she wanted the gold. Making up for her first go at the Olympics, she won the gold medal in the 10,000 m race in the Beijing Olympics, and in her normal fashion managed to break another record by finishing it in a record time of 29:54.66. She also won the 5,000m race making her the first woman to win both the 5,000 and 10,000-meter race at the same Olympics. At the 2012 London Olympics she again won the gold in the 10,000-meter race, in the fastest run of that year, making her the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic 10,000 meter titles.

Chioma Ajunwa, Nigeria, track and field athlete, specializing in the long jump


Ajunwa achieved worldwide notice at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta when she became the first athlete in her country, as well as the first West African woman, to win an Olympic Gold medal. To date, she remains Nigeria’s only individual Olympic gold medalist. She was born into a self-described poor home, resulting from her father’s untimely death, leaving her mother as the sole caretaker for 9 children. She originally played soccer for the Nigerian’s woman’s team, including during the 1991 Women’s World Cup, but remained unknown as she had minimal playing time. She started competing in track and field events in 1989. She began to be noticed in 1991 after the All Africa Games where she won a gold medal in the long jump. Unfortunately the following year she was banned from the sport after failing a drug test.

Following her Olympic win in 1996, Ajunwa retired from the sport and became an officer with the Nigerian Police Force. In 2012, she started her own anti-doping campaign that she has self-financed. Her initiative includes anti-doping messaging communicated directly to athletes and their coaches during athletic events.

Catherine Ndereba, Kenya, Marathon runner


Catherine Ndereba, also known as “Catherine the Great” is a two-time winner of the marathon event at the World Championship in Athletics and two time silver medalist at the Olympics (2004 and 2008). Additionally she is a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon, a world renowned marathon that draws the best runners from all over the world. She broke the women’s marathon world record at the Chicago Marathon in 2001, finishing at 2:18:47. In 2009, she met Katrin Dorres’ record of completing 21 sub-2:30 hour marathons when she finished 7th in the London Marathon that year. In addition to her marathon fame, she also ran the world’s fastest times at the 5K at 16:09, at the 15K at 48:52, at the 12K at 38:37 and at the 10 mile at 53:07 in 1998.

Catherine the Great was named the greatest women’s marathoner of all time in 2008 by the Chicago Tribune. She has also been twice awarded the Kenyan Sportswoman of the year (in 2004 and 2005).

Natalie du Toit, South Africa, Swimmer


Du Toit first competed internationally at age 14 when she participated in the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumper. In 2001 she had her left leg amputated at the knee when she was hit by a car while riding her scooter. Not 3 months after her operation, before she was even walking again, she was training again in hopes of competing in the 2002 Commonwealth Games. She accomplished her goal and swimming without the aid of a prosthetic leg, won both the multi disability 50 m freestyle and the multi disability 100 m freestyle in world record time at the 2002 Commonwealth games in Manchester. Then in 2003, competing against able-bodied swimmers, she won the gold in the 800m freestyle at the All-Africa games and the silver in the 800m freestyle and the bronze in the 400m freestyle at the Afro-Asian games, just 2 years after her accident. She made sporting history when she qualified for the 800 m able-bodied freestyle final, making it the first time an athlete with a disability qualified for the final of an able-bodied event. She is most famed for the two gold medals she won at both the 2004 Paralympic games and the Commonwealth Games.

At the 2006 Commonwealth Games she again won two gold medals and then went on to win another six gold medals at the 4th IPC World Swimming Championships, where she also placed in 3rd overall in a race that included 36 males and 20 females. She became the first amputee ever to qualify for the Olympics, and placed 16th in the 10k marathon swim. She was one of the two Paralympians who competed at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In the 2008 summer Paralypmics she cleaned house winning five gold medals. The South Africa Olympic Committee chose Du Toit to carry their flag at the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony, making her the first athlete to carry a flag in both the Olympic and Paralympics in the same year.

Choosing four female African athletes to highlight was difficult, as there is plenty of talent to choose from. These women stand out because of their determination, perseverance, ability to overcome obstacles and the sheer number of records and glass ceilings they have broken. They are role models in their exemplary demonstration of what a focused mind and hard work can accomplish.

Village loan organizations give women monetary empowerment

By Jocelyn Brousseau

Women are frequently heads of the household; sometimes in charge of finances, and always rearing children and cooking. At the same time, they are not given the respect they deserve and are constantly belittled.

Volunteer (PST 26) Ellen Mork works with VSLAs-village saving and loan associations in Barienou in the Donga region. Basically, VSLAs are a group of up to 40 women and/or men, who meet to save and loan money. They usually meet the day after market, so once or twice a week. During their first meetings together, they set rules and regulations such as amount for a late fee, price of each “share” or part, etc. Every meeting, they put in their allotted savings, whether it be one or five shares, 100 or 1,000 franc a share- they pay what they can. They also pay “solidarity” which is money collected and given out if a member needs a short loan that doesn’t fall under the categories of a regular loan. A member could borrow from the solidarity if their child is sick and needs to go to the health center.  Once the savings have beencollected, people can take out a loan after describing what it is for and how they’ll be able to pay it back in three months. Each month, they pay an a interest rate of 10%, which seems high but these loans are much easier to receive than at the bank. At the end of the year, each member receives their savings and solidarity back, plus a profit made up of late fees and interest. If members are saving and loaning large amounts of money, a they can receive a large profit.

Ellen’s role is to attend their meetings, answer questions and guide them if the women are having issues. She has helped them in a variety of ways: from demonstrating different, more efficient ways of calculating totals, to new ways to write information. She is also working on holding formations on a wide variety of topics, ranging from how to save money in a family setting and malaria prevention to essential health actions. Working with groups like VSLAs is usually easier than working with other groups in a village. They are already a motivated group, and they are willing to make some changes to better their lives. It’s simple to plan a formation, go to their meeting and talk to them for a half an hour on a variety of topics.

The goal of a VSLA is to allow members to earn money and have money available for their needs. Thus, starting an income generating activity (IGA) is prudent. Many members have current businesses and use loans to buy more products, construct new buildings, or expand their business in other ways. Still others use a loan to start an IGA, or buy a bike for their child to go to school. VSLAs offer many ways for a family member to better their life and the life of their family by increasing the amount of money they can earn. If a family member is earning enough through the VSLA, they could send their child to school, who maybe wouldn’t have been able to go before, either because there wasn’t enough money or the child had to work to support the family.

Ellen comments that, “there’s an overall show of support for these groups with women, particularly after a husband sees how much money is earned.  Of course, one always runs into issues relating to the power a husband wields. A husband may see it as empowerment of women and thus a decrease in power he already holds, making him less important in the family. He may also see it as an unnecessary activity for the wife, when she has plenty to do at home: cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, and working in the field. I find this to be the biggest complaint from the husbands.”

VSLAs can have a large effect if they are run properly and supported by the community. It’s rewarding to see a woman receive so much money at the end of the year and know how much it will help her family.

Warrior Women: the Dahomey Amazons and the strength of an all-female army

By Katrina Shankle

“warfare is, nevertheless, the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. Women look to men to protect them from danger, and bitterly reproach them when they fail as defenders. Women have followed the drum, nursed the wounded, tended the fields and herded the flocks when the man of the family has followed his leader, have even dug the trenches for men to defend and labored in the workshops to send them their weapons. Women, however, do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.”- John Keegan, A History of Warfare

The Amazon warriors of the Dahomey kingdom

The Amazon warriors of the Dahomey kingdom

It has been nearly universally argued through time and space that war is predominately a man’s errand. The romanticism of the mythical amazon character- a fierce woman warrior- was bread out of an almost superhero context where people were fascinated in the stories of these fictional women because of their larger than life capabilities. But, as it turns out, while there were plenty of fictional stories written about imagined amazon characters, the amazon was anything but fictional. There are many reasons the story of the Dahomean amazons is so captivating; perhaps it is their complete contradiction to gender roles identified by some of the greatest thinkers of their time, perhaps it is their singular (proven) existence in history as the elite branch of their military or just the fierceness of their story. Whatever it is, it is undeniable that their story is just as captivating as any of the mythical stories told but also perplexing in its distinctiveness in history.

The Dahomey Amazons, referred locally to as mino (our mothers) or ahosi (king’s wives) were a Fon all-female military regiment and royal body guard service in the Kingdom of Dahomey. They acquired the name “amazons” by western observers due to their similarities to the mythical amazons of ancient Anatolia and the black sea. King Houegbadja (ruled 1645-1685) is suggested to have started the group by recruiting a corps of women to serve as elephant hunters called gbeto. His son, King Agadja (ruled 1708-1732) established a female bodyguard corps armed with muskets, they were in part used because no males were allowed to enter the royal palace after dark. When he recognized their talent and loyalty, he expanded their use by creating an all-female militia and used them first to defeat the neighboring Kingdom of Savi in 1727. That same summer they conquered the Whydah (Ouidah) people and then publicly executed 4,000 prisoners as sacrifices to the Voodoo gods (a common practice throughout their existence due to religious beliefs). Under the King Ghezo (ruled 1818-1858) who came into power after a coup in which he watched every amazon woman die in attempt to protect their monarch, an act of loyalty so impressive he quickly recruited more amazons for his own monarch, Dahomey became more militaristic. As such he expanded the role of the military and the use of the amazon women. These Amazon women were first primarily “recruited” from foreign captives, however as the role of the mino became more glorified and their corps expanded, women were also recruited from free Dahomean women, although sometimes this recruitment was involuntary. Once every three years families presented their daughters to the King, the prettiest would go to the King’s harem and the strongest to the militia. While some resisted and tried to run away, the majority considered it an honor. By the mid-19th century the number of amazons had expanded to between 1000 and 6000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army.

Their indoctrination was a very powerful process when you consider the strength and loyalty demonstrated by these women, in particular, when you consider some of their involuntary recruitment. During their membership the women had to take an oath of celibacy, they had to disavow any relation to their family and were not permitted to marry, although some were released of their duty through marriage to the King or permission to marry a prominent noble man. All these actions were to ensure the women’s first loyalty was to the monarch. After taking their oath to protect the king new recruits would each be cut in the arm, allowing the blood to collect in a human skull, it would then be added to a drink mixture each woman would take, an act to symbolize their being bound together.

The regiment was held in high regard by the Kingdom, their barracks were within the palace and they frequently received gifts and praise for their work. They were given uniforms and equipped with Danish guns obtained through the Danish slave trade, as well as machetes, and they filed their nails and teeth to a sharp point to enable them to literally fight tooth and nail. During combat, they covered their bodies in palm oil to make them difficult to grab hold of. This also added to their mysticism, with many accounts of shimmering half naked muscular woman vigorously attacking on the battlefield. While the women did experience some defeats they were consistently judged to be superior to the male soldiers in both skill and bravery. Accounts of the women generally depicted them in a brutal nature, often decapitating and dismembering their captives. They were often heard charging into battle chanting battle cries such as “conquer or die”.

In trying to explain why the community was so willing to accept a female militia, so unique to history, it is important to understand the woman’s role in the society as a whole. While most women’s lives were primarily focused on working in the market and raising children, in general, the women in Dahomey had a lot of progressive rights for their time. Women could divorce men, women had the right to turn down a marriage proposal, they were entitled to inheritance and the money they earned was theirs to spend. In addition to serving as officers in the military, women were also known to serve as judges and village chiefs as well as other prominent roles in the community. This may help explain their acceptance in the community as women warriors, yet upon their completion of indoctrination they were known to say “now we are men” despite being better soldiers than the men, which suggests that they still believed war was a man’s job.

The last battles of the Amazon women were during the Franco-Dahomean Wars in 1890 and 1892. After the French conquered Dahomey in 1892, almost all the Amazons had been wiped out. One of the first decrees announced after Dahomey formally became a French colony was that the women would be prohibited from serving in the military or bearing arms. Following their disbanding, some of the few amazons that remained married, others refused to marry believing they were superior to men. With the final colonization of the French came the end to the female warriors of Dahomey and much of the progressive role of woman in the Dahomean society, and so ended the true story of these larger than life women.

Unfortunately much is still unknown about these mythical women. Foreigners who visited the Kingdom were kept on a friendly house arrest, unable to see much of the Dahomean society and no interviews with Amazon women were conducted until 1920. While there are many theories as to why women were given such a prominent role in the military, none of these theories has been argued without fault. Thus, the mysticism around these women, who they were and why they so uniquely exist in our history, will remain.

*The primary source of information for this piece came from Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War, by Robert B. Edgerton. 

Double Jeopardy

During pregnancy, HIV-positive women experience in increase in both the risk of malaria contraction and transmission of HIV to the child

By Victoria Daughtrey

There are 34 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS, 2.5 million new infections within the past year, 219 million cases of malaria, .7 million deaths linked to AIDS and 1.7 million deaths due to malaria.

As two of the most deadly diseases that are also most densely prevalent throughout the same heavily populated continent, one would think the connection between the two would be obvious. Yet, their overlap is strikingly subtle as research on this relationship is relatively new and limited. Unsurprisingly, patients infected with HIV type 1 virus, one of the most common strands in sub-Saharan Africa, who contract malaria are more likely to react more fiercely to the disease, quickly progressing to deadly clinical cases, severe malaria or “Palu grave,” and death by malaria. At the same time, the presence of the malaria parasite causes a patients’ HIV/AIDS viral load to spike, further deteriorating the immune system.

Arguably, HIV/AIDS malaria patients can increase malaria transmission within a community as they develop symptoms more quickly and severely, but this demographic is just as likely as the general population to be bitten by an Anopheles mosquito (the malaria vector) and therefore contract malaria, unlike many other common West African illnesses such as Tuberculosis and diarrhea. Other fears of a correlation between the diseases stem from a common method of malaria treatment that involves blood transfusions, which increases the likelihood of HIV transmission.

The real mystery of the two killers’ correlation however, lies with one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most vulnerable populations: pregnant mothers.

PST 24 volunteers Nora Phillips, left, and Kate Jefferies help students complete an informational AIDS mural last December.

PST 24 volunteers Nora Phillips, left, and Kate Jefferies help students complete an informational AIDS mural last December.

As a population that is already more at-risk to contract malaria, as pregnant women emit a hormone that attracts the Anopheles mosquito, HIV-infected pregnant women who contract malaria are the greatest concern for public health.

An increase in viral load caused by malaria theoretically amplifies the chances of HIV transmission from mother to child during birth, although there have been conflicting studies in the area. The combination of the two diseases also increases the probability of low birth weight, miscarriages, anemia in mother and child and stillbirths.

These mothers more likely to have a case of placental malaria, which is a heavy concentration of the parasite found in the placenta postbirth. Cases of passing parasite from mother to child have not been sufficiently scientificallyrecorded, however, and it is doubtful the disease can be transmitted this way, unlike HIVvirus transmission, which must be prevented by prescription drugs. The presence of placental malaria is presumed to occur at birth as the final wave of the mother’s antibodies are given to the baby during the birthing process.

“There’s a surge as all the mother’s antibodies travel to the baby,” said Matt McLaughlin, Stomping Out Malaria Boot Camp founder, “Think of it as a mother’s final gift to her child. This may account for the heavy presence of the malaria parasite found in the placenta.”

This large and highly susceptible demographic is important to protect against malaria. In addition to using insecticide treated bed nets, the World Health Organization encourages pregnant women to take Sulfadoxine Pyrimethamine or SP as a prophylaxis. HIV infected women however, cannottake this drug as it interferes with antiretroviral drugs and are instead prescribed Cotorimayazade—a difficult drug as it must be taken daily as opposed to SP which can be taken in three single doses.

The general health consequences for the correlation between HIV/AIDS and malaria run much deeper in West African communities as the impact of the two disease are so deadly and unforgiving, especially among young mothers.

Peter McElory, President’s Malaria Initiative Regional Coordinator with the Center of Disease Control and former Peace Corps volunteer advises current volunteers to promote safe sleeping, pointing out the correlation between bed net use and condom use.

“Bed nets reduce mortality and the likelihood of infection by 50%,” said McElory, “not to mention condom use prevents HIV/AIDS transmission.”

So cover up Benin, and sleep safely.

Unreadily available

For those with HIV in Benin, treatment is covered by the government, but is limited to distribution at specific health centers.

By  Jocelyn Brousseau

When it comes to HIV/AIDS in Benin, the general public is lucky to not have as high of a rate of contraction seen in other African countries. For example, theprevalence rate amongst adults in South Africa is 17.9 percent compared to Benin’s 1.1 percent. And for those seeking treatment, all HIV/AIDS treatment in Benin is paid for by the government.

The problem is, this treatment is not readily available at all health centers in Benin.

A rapid blood test is administered at volunteer (PST 24) Amy Groshong’s World AIDS Day event in her village Agbangnizoun in December 2012.

A rapid blood test is administered at volunteer (PST 24) Amy Groshong’s World AIDS Day event in her village Agbangnizoun in December 2012.

Locations equipped for treatment exist in all departments in the country, and this information is broadcasted to the general public by radio and television commercials, but departments are large and transportation is unreliable. For example, in the Atacora, the closest treatment for people in the villages of Cobly or Materi is in Tanguieta, a 45-minute motorcycle taxi ride away.

In almost every health center, tests for HIV/AIDS are available. These, however, are not free. Patients can expect to pay around 4,000 CFA.

Organizations, such as PSI and UNICEF, offer tests for free when their tours come to a village. There are also formations and sensibilizations that are held in village by NGOs from Benin and other countries in Europe and America. A common resource amongst Peace Corps volunteers is Amour & Vie teams that go out into our communities and speak about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention.

Hopefully, as time goes on, the population of Benin will be more informed about how to prevent transmission of the virus, and we can reduce all together the percentage of people who have HIV/AIDS.

More than half the sky

While means of transmission and societal norms make women an especially vulnerable population, they are also one of the groups fighting the hardest to educate others and prevent future cases of HIV.

By Rachel Leeds

Of all HIV-positive women, 76 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa. More than half the people living with HIV/AIDS in Benin are women (37,000 out of 72,000 people total). According to UNAIDS, for every ten men living in Sub-Saharan Africa that become infected with HIV, thirteen women are also infected.

In the small village of Takon (Toffo), the threat of HIV/AIDS seems a world away. During an AIDS Awareness Day in Toffo in 2010, only one out of 120 participants tested positive, and during another testing day in 2013 none of the 100+ attendees were positive. Nevertheless, HIV/AIDS is a problem that continues to plague every region of Benin. Women, who are already marginalized members of Beninese society, carry a disproportionate weight of this burden. I consulted three nurses at the St. Raphael health center in Takon – Cidonia, Amélie, and Marie – in order to better understand this relationship between women and AIDS.

We framed our discussion around three topics: how the disease is transmitted, prevented, and treated. HIV is most commonly transmitted during sexual intercourse, and this risk is greater for a woman who has unprotected sex with an HIV-positive man than if a man were to have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman. It is easier for women to become infected with sexually transmitted diseases in general, and if a woman already has another STD, especially one that causes open sores around the vagina, it is even more likely that she will get HIV. Because of this, “il faut toujours se déplacer avec votre passport,” Cidonia quipped, referring to condoms as a young woman’s “passport.” “L’amour se joue à deux,” she explained. If a man refuses to wear a condom, the woman should refuse to have sex with him. Some men equate protected sex to eating a banana with its peel on, and use this as an excuse to refuse buying or wearing condoms. Sexually active women should always have a condom with them, know how to use it, and be prepared to explain the importance of protection to their partner.

In addition to proper condom use, the most important and reliable method of prevention is regular testing. When a woman comes to the health center for her first prenatal consultation, HIV testing (referred to as PTME, or Prevention de la Transmission Mère-Enfant) is mandatory. If she tests positive, depending on her CD4 count she will either begin taking antiretrovirals immediately or wait until the beginning of her second trimester. Her dosage will also be different compared to that of a woman who is not pregnant. Promoting HIV testing presents a particular challenge in Benin. There is little to no understanding of preventative medicine, especially in rural areas; many patients wait until they are symptomatic before taking the necessary time and resources to go to the health center. Voluntary HIV testing should therefore be incorporated into other community programs to target these populations that might not seek testing otherwise. Population Services International (PSI)’s Mobile Clinic also offers free HIV testing.

PST 25 RCH volunteer Rachel Leeds, center, poses with from left, Cidonia, Marie and Amelie. The three women work as nurses at the St. Raphael health center in Takon.

PST 25 RCH volunteer Rachel Leeds, center, poses with from left, Cidonia, Marie and Amelie. The three women work as nurses at the St. Raphael health center in Takon.

Additional risks

Mother-to-child transmission is of particular concern for HIV-positive women. There are three critical moments when HIV can be transmitted from mother to infant: during pregnancy, during childbirth, and during breast feeding. Promoting regular prenatal consultations and high quality antenatal care is extremely important for any woman, but especially a seropositive mother-to-be. Without any treatment, there is a 15-45 percent chance that the infant will become infected with HIV. If, however, she takes antiretrovirals responsibly and as directed by her health care professional, the mother can reduce this risk to less than 2 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

An HIV-positive woman should give birth in a well-equipped health center or hospital to mitigate any potential complications during labor. The umbilical cord must be cut correctly, with hygienic, sterile instruments. The infant should also be given ARVs during the first several weeks of its life in order to control its viral load or eliminate an infection altogether. Although there is a risk of transmitting HIV in breast milk, in Benin it is still recommended that a mother taking ARVs exclusively breast feed her child

during the first six months of its life. Exclusive breast feeding is the surest way to protect an infant from malnutrition, diarrhea, and other illnesses that pose a serious threat for a newborn. As with any decision during her pregnancy, it is important that the woman receive as much information as possible from her health center in order to make the best decision for her situation.

Community education

When the conversation turned to the social implications of the disease, Amelie was quick to assure me that there is little to no stigmatization of HIV-positive individuals in Benin. Marie disagreed, saying that many women refuse to be tested because they prefer blissful ignorance to potentially being shunned by their friends and family if they discovered they were positive. Even if there is little evidence of malicious targeting or neglect of seropositive people, lack of accurate information about the disease is just as dangerous. Cidonia, for example, did not know there was a virus called HIV, or a disease called AIDS, until 2007 when she began her medical training.

The nurses agreed that significant progress had been made in recent years, largely due to the educational programs and services offered by Peace Corps and ABMS/PSI. PSI/Benin has been working in collaboration with ABMS (the Association Béninoise pour le Marketing Social et la communication pour la santé) since 1994.

PSI/ABMS uses peer education activities (namely the Amour et Vie program) and mass media campaigns to promote healthy behaviors and proper condom use. According to PSI, their services helped avert an estimated 1,340 cases of HIV in 2012.

Cidonia hopes that future public health interventions address the underlying, economic causes of HIV/AIDS. Prostitution and sexual harassment continue to threaten girls and women, especially those of lower social and economic status. Although the national prevalence rate is relatively low, prevalence among sex workers is 20.9 percent. Impoverished girls may offer sexual favors in exchange for money, food, and other gifts from professors and classmates. In such a compromised position, these girls are not often in a position to demand their partner’s HIV status, or insist on using a condom. This not only exposes her to HIV, but to unwanted pregnancies as well. In any culture where a woman’s sex is seen as a commodity to be bought and traded, HIV will always be a significant threat, and one that, unfortunately, takes a greater toll on the women of that society than the men.

Looking to the future

Though the situation for HIV-positive women in developing countries is bleak, it is not completely hopeless. The Global Fund just signed three new grants, totaling US

$68.8 million in aid for Benin, for HIV projects targeting sex workers and pregnant

women. Amour et Vie and other prevention programs continue to have a significant impact on Beninese youth, reducing the HIV prevalence rate in that demographic from 1.8 percent in 2008 to 0.4 percent in 2012, according to the Global Fund. Women

may suffer a disproportionate burden, but they are also especially active in the effort to fight the epidemic. Cidonia, Amélie, and Marie encourage the women in Takon to make

healthy decisions and set a positive example with their own strength, independence, and behaviors. And there are other women like them in the most remote corners of Benin, helping make HIV seem even remoter.

Promoting misbehavior: where is the gender rights movement in Benin?

By Katrina Shankle

During one of my English club debates we contemplated if women were equal. The responses highlight how unequal our world remains. The girls in the club who did stand up and say they had the same right to opportunity- that they could be a president or a business owner, were mocked. Even worse they were heckled if they suggested they had the right to not be beaten. One boy in the class commented, “sometimes women act like monkeys, you must hit them so they behave”, when I asked what he meant by act like monkeys he said, for example if he came home and there was no food on the table. I was also informed that biologically, women were built to be less intelligent and less strong than men. I tried to challenge this line of thought, comparing the stereotypes that women face today to the stereotypes faced by the black community in America before and after the Civil Rights Movement. I explained that the things they were saying about women were similar to what white people said about black people in America, but it didn’t resonate with my audience.

Living as an American woman, in a place where gender inequality is generally more subtle, it is easy to forget that I belong to the single most disenfranchised group in the world. “..up to 70 per cent of women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime-the majority by husbands, intimate partners or someone they know…Among women between 15 and 44, acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined[i] . Femicide, the murder of women because they are women happens around the world- in the US one third of women killed each year are killed by a partner and in South Africa a woman is killed every 6 hours by a partner[ii]. About 6.2% of potential female births are aborted in India because an ultrasound revealed the sex. That’s 480,000 per year, which is more than the number of girls born in the UK each year.[iii] In 2007, India reported 8,093 cases of dowry-related deaths, a number that does not include falsely labeled suicides and accidents.[iv] “Women and girls comprise 80 percent of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked annually, with a majority (79 percent) trafficked for sexual exploitation…Approximately 100 to 140 million girls and women in the world have experienced female genital mutilation/cutting, with more than 3 million girls in Africa annually at risk of the practice…Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia (31.1 million) and Sub-Saharan Africa (14.1 millon).[v]

Standing in that class listening to teachers and students alike, people who I consider my friends in the community, casually talk about my biological inferiority, watching them with their arrogant laughter, put those girls bold enough to stand up and say their piece in their so-called place shook me with rage and sadness. How could it be that this happens? How could it be that I live in a world where if I wasn’t lucky enough to be born into a strong family in America that I could be married off, that my role would be to reproduce, to accept that my fidelity would be necessary but my husband would be silently allowed to take on more wives. That my genitals would somehow be offensive to the world and something needed to be mutilated to remain pure. That if I strayed from my obligatory housewife role that my husband would have the right to beat me. It is a global ugly truth that somehow we have come to accept through complicity.

Taking a step back from my last Camp GLOW where we had sessions that taught girls about the futures they should fight for, the rights they have and how to avoid sexual advances from teachers, I had ask myself what kind of world are we living in, that this is what we have to teach these girls? And worse I had to ask myself, if by teaching these girls how to be strong, we were teaching them how to “misbehave”. I have to believe upon returning home, most shied back into the role they are allowed, and of those that did heed our advice, I wonder if they are paying the price for being a free thinker. Teaching these girls what their rights ought to be isn’t enough, it doesn’t change the rest of the community, it doesn’t pave the road to the future. I hope it does encourage some to fight for what is theirs, I hope some know they deserve better.

When I began researching this piece originally about women in politics, I thought I would write more specifically about the glass ceiling women face in politics; I wanted to talk about case studies like Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, both strong women who as politicians were brutalized for their bull-like behavior that would have been glorified if they had been born with a Y chromosome. Yet, that feels almost frivolous now. I don’t think Hillary cares that she is called cold, I think she cares to see the agenda she believes in pushed and I think she would be ok with taking the brunt of our gender biases if it meant the next woman in her shoes got a fair shot. I think it matters that there is still a glass ceiling in places like America, because until we can get it right there, how can we ask others to do what we fail at? I think it matters around the world that women hold positions of power in politics, because who best to advocate for the universal rights of women than women, who best to stand as role models than women who have broken the glass ceiling and who best to participate in an international dialogue about what it means to be equal than the disenfranchised?

Women in America have made significant headway: we have written the 19th amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment, we (with limitations) have the right to abortions, have the right to divorce and alimony, we have paid maternity leave and nondiscrimination acts to protect our hiring as well as the equal pay act, we have sexual harassment and domestic violence laws, and shelters for women who have no place to turn. Yet even still the rate of sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, wage inequality, disparities in the number of women who are CEOs of fortune 500 companies, representation in Congress, and participation and mistreatment in the military continue to suggest that there is more to be done for the women’s rights at home. How then can we be surprised to learn that in countries with far less protection of human rights on paper women are shackled to the discriminatory lifestyles that have become a kind of social norm?

During the Civil rights movement it took strong leadership by those who boldly stood in the face of danger to demand to be considered equal. The black community got angry, they said “no I will not accept this”. They resisted unfair laws, they faced jail time, beatings and murder they took to the streets, and they rioted, they made America and the world look at its own ugliness. Where is that fire for women’s rights? Why haven’t we advocated more for the lives of women who weren’t so lucky to be able to stand up for themselves? Why haven’t we demanded better, and not accepted our failures to fundamentally protect human rights a greater failure than just a missed piece on a political agenda? It’s not enough to characterize acts as good and bad, and it’s not enough to say that gender discrimination is a problem. There needs to be more done, more commitments made and risks taken to protect the lives of women around the world. There needs to be more done to educate the populous on the rights of women, on the need for equality and cultural sensitivity cannot be at the expense of a woman’s life. As more than 50% of the world’s population, it is time that women got an equal number of seats at every table.