The traditional gender equality of the Ju/’hoansi helps them avoid the ravages of AIDS, according to a research paper prepared by Richard B. Lee for presentation this week at an important conference in Toronto.

Dr. Lee gave a speech over a year ago in Edmonton on this topic, but, to judge by a feature in the Toronto Star on Saturday, he has continued his research on the incidence of AIDS among the Ju/’hoansi since then. The full paper does not yet appear to be available on the Web, but according to the Star report, Lee argues that it is the high status of women in Ju/’hoansi society that helps them avoid the disease. Other issues such as religious prohibitions against sex, modern medicines, or potential immunities do not seem to be involved.

The reason for their relative freedom from HIV infection is that women in that society have the right to pick and choose their mates, and to refuse men who do not want to wear condoms. In much of the rest of Africa, where men dominate societies, the women don’t have the authority to make such refusals. Men assume that women have to obey them. If men don’t want to wear condoms, that’s the way it is.

However, “with the Ju/’hoansi,” Lee says, “their high status in the community gives women plenty of leverage in sexual negotiations.” As a result, the Ju/’hoansi have an AIDS rate of perhaps 5 percent, while Namibia, where many of them live, probably has a rate of over 20 percent.

The Ju/’hoansi live in a very isolated location on the border between Namibia and Botswana, off of main truck routes which foster the spread of AIDS in Africa. While that sort of isolation may help, Lee maintains it is not necessarily the primary factor. He’s aware of other isolated African societies that have a high incidence of AIDS.

The most important factor, he argues, is the traditional hunter-gatherer culture, in which the sexes had considerable equality. And that culture persists. To this day, the Ju/’hoansi continue to mix in some hunting and gathering with their farming and herding work. “The traditional high status of women [in their culture] has worked in their favour in keeping the rates of HIV very low,” Lee concludes to the Star.

Lee’s presentation is one of about 4,500 research papers, selected from over 14,000 submissions, being presented at oral sessions during the International AIDS Conference, the world’s major AIDS research forum, which will conclude tomorrow at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.