Challenging Western Perspectives on Health

We are nearing the end of our trip here in South Africa and it truly has been a life changing experience. The biggest transformation I have seen in myself is challenging myself to think more from an American context. As an American, we often think from a western point of view. However, the western world is not a standard on how to understand the framework of how all societies operate, though often treated that way. For example, when it comes to South Africa, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is often one of the top topics brought to the forefront of the discussion. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is often broken down into categories. Firstly, the total number of people affected, then how this varies by gender. However, in the African context, gender is not just a black and white, easily categorized ideology. In fact, today’s guest lecture at the University of Cape Town talked about this subject more in-depth. It was explained that in the African context, roles in society are rather fluid in terms of how gender operates. For example, the topic of a male daughter was brought up. A male daughter is when an African family has a substantial number of women offspring and typically no males, the first daughter would be given the position in society as male. She will have access to trust funds, court negotiations, and treated as a male although biologically female. Western statistics do not account for this gender fluidity, nor does it account for how class and social status intersect, especially when generalizing that women of South Africa do not have the power to negotiate consent. Overall, the Western context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic fails to intentionally dive into what these statistics actually mean.

Aside from statistics, another aspect I found intersting on this trip that more directly connects with my intersted in Public Health is how people of South Africa are educated about HIV/AIDS. As an American, our standard understanding of how the disease is spread is rather straight forward and there is not a lot of debate on what is factual and what is myth. However, in South Africa, understanding transmission is not so black and white. In fact, depending on who you are talking to, you may get various answers that have little to nothing in common. Initially, when hearing South Africans’ thoughts on transmission, the health sciences major wanted to bring my western context answer to the forefront. However, now realizing how abstractly different people’s responses are, I challenge myself to think that if education around health wasn’t so straight forward and you heard different answers from various people, including politicians and health care providers, who would you believe?

-Kayla

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