Powell's African AIDS advice missing the boat

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Promiscuity and other risky sexual behavior must change to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saturday.

Young Kenyans, including an 11-year-old girl, had a frank discussion with Powell about promiscuity, resistance to condoms and the cultural expectation that young girls will have sex with much older men.

"Those sorts of patterns of behavior have to change to protect young people," Powell told the gathering.

AIDS kills more than 600 people every day in South Africa. Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, once denied knowing anyone who had died of the disease.

Powell sat in a circle with 19 Kenyans, most in their teens and 20s, who work to prevent HIV transmission among their peers. The discussion included blunt discussion of sexual and cultural practices, including what 24-year-old Boniface Mwendwa described as social pressure for young women to have sex with "people we call sugar daddies."

Older men are much more likely than young girls or women to carry the disease, and older men-to-younger-women is a major source of transmission in Kenya and elsewhere.

"Are you getting through to the young people, or do you say you're square?" Powell asked.

I appreciate the push for greater education and awareness about HIV and AIDS, especially to young people, and especially in areas hardest hit by AIDS.

However: how are we expecting 11-year-old girls, especially in areas where even grown women have little agency, to be the ones drawing the line on sex with men sometimes decades older than they are? And why, cultural issues taken into account, are changes attempted per the approach to HIV, but not to misogynistic ideas like "virginity?," especially in areas where in many cases, virginity idea and ideals actually appear to be feeding the spread of HIV? Why is there address of "social pressure," and not address of rape and coercion? Why aren't we exploring at least SOME avenues to earnestly address and seek to change the power imbalances which create not only the spread of HIV in places like Africa -- as well as the U.S. and other nations -- but which continue to keep women of all ages from equal, real sexual consent, health and quality of life?

(And is it possible in part that these issues are squirmed away from when it comes to address of HIV and AIDS because some people, including many in our own government, still REALLY want HIV/AIDS to be viewed as "gay diseases," and acknowledging that anymore, women are hardest hit by HIV EVERYWHERE, would remove that intentionally sustained delusion?)