Silence, sexuality and HIV/AIDS in South African schools

Morrell, R.

In South Africa where there is a very high HIV infection rate among teenagers and young adults, it is surprising to find that students and teachers are very unwilling to talk about the possibility of being or becoming HIV positive. While AIDS messages dominate public discourse, there is a silence in schools about the personal in relation to AIDS. This article seeks to explain the reluctance of learners to test, talk about and disclose their HIV status, by examining silence within a broader context. It draws on gender theories to show the connections between the silence of AIDS and broader, society-wide gender inequalities. A focus on ‘silence’ adds a neglected gendered phenomenon to the understanding of the AIDS pandemic. Silence is a feature of gender relations that prevents the negotiation of safe sex, the exploration of the self and the expression of vulnerability and hence the building of trust and respect. Conversely, silence contributes to intolerance and fuels prejudice. When interventions consciously attempt to break the silence, they make a major contribution to reducing the likelihood of HIV transmission and to promoting gender equality.