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Silence and the Spoken Word: Unpacking HIV/AIDS Health Narratives among Maroon Women in Suriname, South America

  • Author(s): Staten, JoAnn
  • Advisor(s): Roberts, Allen F.
  • et al.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic has required a coordinated, global, public health response to study the disease and develop effective interventions to reduce its spread. In Suriname, South America, socioeconomic and health related disparities shaping Maroon women's lives for generations challenge intervention development due to gendered power dynamics and cultural expectations. In 2002, Fidelia Graand-Galon, an Ndjuka Maroon woman from Suriname, visited the UCLA Fowler Museums' "Break the Silence": Art and HIV/AIDS in South Africa exhibition highlighting the beaded sculptures and colored wireworks of Zulu women in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The artwork had been created as part of an art-based HIV/AIDS-awareness intervention designed to provide women safe spaces to discuss personal issues while making art capable of generating income. She decided to initiate a similar art-based initiative through her organization, the Maroon Women's Network, using the Siyazama approach developed by Kate Wells in South Africa. The Pangi Exhibition Project included HIV-awareness sessions and encouraged Maroon women to create pangi (wrap skirts) with embroidered or appliquéd HIV/AIDS-awareness messages that could be worn in urban and rainforest communities.

In 2004, their awareness initiative entered the national discourse through the "Break the Silence": Art and HIV/AIDS Akoti Kuutu Pangi Exhibition by highlighting their artistry, cultural history, and determination to preserve their vaginal washing practice, which had been identified by public health officials as increasing potential levels of HIV-risk. Through art and performance Maroon women were able to rally community support and challenge public health perspectives. This dissertation uses an ethnographic approach to examine these early Maroon-initiated awareness events and a later series of awareness events developed and presented from 2007 to 2009 by Renatha Ajoni, the first HIV-positive Maroon born and raised in Suriname to go public about her status, to see how Maroon women respond to risk-reduction strategies in Suriname.

Their narratives revealed that communal pressures often silence Maroon women as they choose between adopting behaviors that conform to expectations, but increase risk or revealing their HIV-positive status before being emotionally prepared to do so. I contend that intervention designs, like aggressive condom usage programs, allow Maroon men to maintain their gendered cultural identities while Maroon women have limited intervention options capable of doing so. As a result, particularly in rainforest villages, public health professionals remain challenged by mother-to-child and heterosexual transmission.

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