despite high levels of knowledge about modes of HIV transmission and prevention, many women lack control over their own sexuality, since economic dependence, sexual violence and patriarchal sexual cultures diminish their ability to express their own sexual preferences and desires.
This includes the right to say no to sex, to decide when they want sex and with whom they want sex, the size of the sexual networks they are part of, and the right to insist on protected sex.
Namibia is experiencing a feminisation of HIV/ Aids as women account for three out of every four new infections (Ministry of Health and Social Services, 2009).
Overall, female mortality rates are up and have doubled since 2000 compared to a 65% increase in adult male mortality during the same period. Namibia’s maternal mortality rates have also increased from 271 per 100 000 live births during the period 1991-2000 to 449 per 100 000 live births during the period 1998-2007 (MHSS 2008).
McFadden and! Khaxas (2007) argue that the collective socialisation of women diminishes their individualism, exacts conformity and silences their voices. Their groundbreaking research in Namibia’s Caprivi Region lifts the veil of secrecy around the sexual abuse that occurs under the rubric of “African culture” and highlights a number of intersections between HIV/Aids and patriarchal sexual cultures.
These practices are not restricted to the Caprivi Region and can be found in a number of southern African countries. They concluded that patriarchal cultures around matters of sexuality brutalise women into a denial of their own personhood and violate their bodily integrity. Some of the sexual rituals and practices that interface with HIV/Aids are:
Female Initiation: In the Caprivi Region there are two practices related to female initiation, Sikenge and Mulaleka. Sikenge is an initiation ritual that begins with the onset of
The girl is taught that silence and obedience is a natural part of womanhood. She is prepared for her sexual and reproductive role, and how to give pleasure to her future husband. Through verbal abuse, beatings and scarring, she is “tamed”. Various herbs are then rubbed into the wounds to make the girl sexually powerful, so that she could keep her man. Sikenge provides multiple opportunities for HIV infection to occur through beatings, whipping, and the mutilation of the labia.
Mulaleka is the actual initiation into sex. This initiation is an incestuous sexual encounter where the grandfather, uncle or sometimes brother has sex with the teenage girl with the full consent of the grandmother. This is referred to as “sexual testing”. The act is then convoluted as fantasy for the girl who is later told that she only “dreamt” it. This practice is a violation of the Namibian law and amounts to statutory rape, but is enforced by the cultural norms that are at odds with various conventions that protect children’s rights.
This early sexual debut provides opportunities for unwanted pregnancy as well as STI and HIV transmission.
Widow cleansing/ Kahoma: There is a belief that a widow who has recently lost her husband should be cleansed through sexual intercourse with a man. The patriarchal narrative that underlies this practice is that an unclean woman will eventually cause men to suffer, lose weight and eventually die. Once again, this ritual provides opportunity for HIV transmission, as the widow’s husband could have died of Aids, or the man who “cleanses” her could be HIV positive.
Dry Sex: This is tightening of the vagina through the insertion of herbs and herbal powder to rid the vagina of fluids. Vaginal fluids are often regarded as unclean. The dry vagina is then forcefully penetrated. This causes ruptures and lesions that increase the possibility of HIV transmission.
Polygamy and the sexual culture of concurrent partnerships:
There are other insidious forms of control over women’s bodies that stem from women’s economic dependency and the socio-cultural regulation of their sexuality and fertility. Male control over women’s bodies is legitimised by culture and tradition. Women often do not contest this control because of economic dependence, the fear of being ostracised or being labelled “un-African”.
The introduction of capitalism and christianisation resulted in a decline in polygamous marriage, but not to a concomitant decline in the sexual culture of multiple and concurrent sexual partnering, which still persists unabated. Male-initiated multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships fuel the Aids epidemic. This is justified as the “ways of the forefathers” Tearing Us Apart: Inequalities in Southern Africa2004). Although women in stable unions tend to practice monogamy, they often cannot enforce it on their male partners.
Other risky sexual practices: The payment of lobola/bride wealth is central to patriarchal control over women’s sexuality. Le Beau, Iipinge and Conteh (2004) and McFadden & !Khaxas( 2007) argue that lobola represents an exchange relationship that enslaves and entraps women, because in some cultures women have to double the amount of lobola (either in cattle or in cash) initially paid for them by the groom’s family in order to get a divorce. The fact that the husband’s family paid lobola also leads to other practices like sororate relationships, i.e. when the woman’s family sends another woman (normally a younger sister or cousin) to replace her if she dies or if she is infertile. Leveratic marriage ensures that the deceased husband’s family gains control over his assets after his death. A younger male (brother/ cousin) normally marries the widow and takes control over the assets (Le Beau et al 2004). Women who refuse leveratic
marriage can lose all the assets accrued in a marriage as she and her children then have to return to her natal relatives after the death of her spouse (McFadden & !Khaxas 2007).
Wife Lending: Talavera (2002) also reports that in certain cultures (Ovaherero and Ovahimba) the practice of okujepisa or oupanga makes it socially acceptable for a husband to lend his wife to a male friend or person of high social status to strengthen the male friendship.
The reverse is also acceptable when a wife invites her husband to sleep with her female guest.
Violence and HIV Transmission: In Namibia, violence against women and children constitutes 80-90% of all cases of gender-based violence reported to police (Shejavali 2008). Widespread sexual violence like rape diminishes women’s control over their sexuality and places them at extreme risk of HIV infection. Attitudes towards wife-beating are often used to measure women’s social status. The 2006/07 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) found that 35% of women and 41 percent of men agreed that under certain circumstances, a man has the right to beat his wife. The figures vary according to age, rural-urban location, levels of education and wealth.
Women take over the bulk of the care burden for those who are sick with Aids and orphans who lost parents due to Aids. In many of the matrilineal communities children are taken in by the maternal kin. It is argued that in these communities, the patrilineage gets the property and the matrilineage the children (Le Beau, Iipinge and Conteh 2004: 35) While this may be so, the inheritance of property may also occur patrilineally, i.e. the male relatives on the father’s or mother’s side, such as the mother’s brother, father’s brothers (on the mother’s side) and father’s sister’s sons.
This article is an extract from a report called Inequality in Namibia compiled by Herbert Jauch, Lucy Edwards & Braam Cupido