Disco Funerals: A Dangerous Dance

Some readers might remember the 2007 male circumcision trials that took place in Kisumu, Kenya.  The hype surrounding the study led to broad endorsement of and funding for adult male circumcision programs long before research was done on the preventative effects that male circumcision has, or doesn’t have, for women.

Once again, Kisumu is the site of controversial findings by Carolyne Njue, Helene Voeten and Pieter Remes published by the journal AIDS. The study looks at “disco funerals,” which bring together community members at the home of the deceased for several days, for a celebration accompanied by music and dancing ala New Orleans.

Why were the researchers provoked to explore HIV and STI transmission among youth at these spaces?  The results are shocking.

The researchers found that many adolescents reported having casual sex at disco funerals, sometimes with multiple partners and mostly without condoms.  The researchers also reported several instances of sexual coercion and several accounts of gang rape.

In Kisumu, a town with a generalized AIDS epidemic, the high AIDS mortality leads to frequent disco funerals. This has created a vicious cycle leading to more adolescents having unprotected, transactional, or coerced sex, which contributes to HIV transmission among youth, especially among adolescent girls: In Kisumu, HIV prevalence for males is 19.8%, and 30.1% for females. Among young people ages 15-19, HIV prevalence is much higher among young women (23%) compared to young men (3.5%).

Sexual and reproductive health and HIV prevention interventions, including comprehensive sexuality education, are urgently needed to reach youth who attend disco funerals, as recommended by the authors. In addition, parents and funeral organizers need to be informed in order to end this practice that violates girls’ sexual and reproductive rights and puts them at risk of HIV infection, and other sexually transmitted infections. Adolescent girls have a right to a just and healthy life, and disco funerals do not fit into that equation.

Lyn Messner is the Program Officer for Africa at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.

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