Dr. Kalinda is a Lecturer, Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension Education, University of Zambia, Lusaka, Zambia htkalinda at unza.zm
Mr. Tembo is a Lecturer, Department of Social Development Studies, University of Zambia, Lusaka, Zambia robert.tembo at unza.zm
This study investigated sexual practices in two communities of Mansa District in Zambia. The specific objectives of the study were to examine local views on patterns of sexual behavior; determine whether extra-nuptial sex, sexual cleansing and levirate marriage are practiced in the context of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. The study findings show that extra-nuptial sexual activity is common among the people. Extra-nuptial sex relations especially among men were very common and this has encouraged the entrenchment of transactional sex among some vulnerable girls and women. There has also been a decrease in the number of levirate marriages in Mansa mainly due to increased knowledge about the high risks of HIV and AIDS infection associated with the involvement of multiple sexual partners in these types of marriages. However, some people are still involved in levirate marriages despite the dangers posed by the HIV pandemic. Poverty and gender power dynamics were identified as the major factors in this. Levirate marriages in the area are perpetuated by power relations and gender roles in which men are traditionally dominant in relationships with women. The subservient orientation of women makes it difficult for the women to abandon risky practices like sexual cleansing and levirate marriage as well as to fail to negotiate for safer sex practices such as use of condoms.
In June 2000, the National AIDS Council estimated that 830,000 Zambians over the age of 15 were living with HIV and AIDS. Over 54% of these were women, demonstrating a well-established pandemic across the population. An estimated 14% of rural adults are HIV - infected, as are an estimated 28% of urban adults (National AIDS Council, 2000). The severity of the AIDS epidemic in Zambia has therefore led to a search in the country for factors, including cultural practices that might facilitate the transmission of HIV.
In Zambia, as in several other African countries, certain population groups are known to be particularly vulnerable. The epidemic has been categorized as increasingly affecting the youth and women, with proportions and numbers in these categories increasing rapidly and young women the most vulnerable of all (Reid, 1990; Adeokun, 1995). Women’s risk is known to be compounded by a plurality of socio-economic and cultural practices both modern and customary. For example, the kinds of polygyny and multi-partner sex which were in the past partly by-products of late marriage and long period of sexual abstinence of wives between births may put couples at risk of contracting HIV, as sexual networks become geographically far flung, reaching distant centers of infection (Caldwell and Caldwell, 1993). Other persistent cultural practices such as wife inheritance and ritual cleansing of widows through sexual intercourse add to the vulnerability of both men and women for acquiring the disease. By encouraging dense networks of sexual contact, these cultural practices increase the risk of infection. Therefore, in order to reduce this risk of infection, there is need for changes to occur in cultural practices such as sexual cleansing, levirate marriage, polygyny, and extra-nuptial sexual relations.
This study investigated sexual practices in two communities of Mansa District in Zambia. The specific objectives of the study were to examine local views on patterns of sexual behavior; determine whether extra-nuptial sex, sexual cleansing and levirate marriage are practiced in the context of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.
The study was conducted in Mansa, a rural town in Luapula Province of Zambia. The district shares boundaries with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west and south, Mwense District in the north-west, Samfya District in the east, Milenge District in the southeast and Luwingu District in the north-east. Mansa is the hub of the Luapula Province and connects to the Copperbelt through the Mansa-Chembe/ Luwingu road which also connect the district to the Northern Province.
According to the 2000 Census, Mansa has a total of 36,882 households with a total population of 182,507 persons with an annual growth rate of 3.3% (CSO, 2000). The district has various ethnic groups with the Aushi being the largest group. There are the Lamba in Chembe area and the Ng’umbo in the eastern part of the district along the border with Samfya District. There are eight Chiefs in the district namely Kalasa Lukangaba, Chimese, Mabumba, Chisunka, Kalaba Mibenge, Matanda and Kasoma. There are also some Sub-Chiefs, namely, Kale Nsonga, Kundamfumu, Chamawabuseba, Chansa and Kapwepwe.
Mansa is appropriate for the study since all the cultural aspects of interest are common in this area, that is, polygyny, inheritance, sexual cleansing and levirate marriage. Since these practices are also observed in some other regions of Zambia, any changes in these practices in Mansa may be extrapolated to some extent to other areas; the area can thus be used as a yardstick to measure socio-cultural responses to HIV and AIDS. Mansa is also the provincial headquarters of Luapula Province, and is therefore a melting point for all other districts. This has made it a fast – growing town as people from other districts come into the district for various activities including trading and prostitution. The District has been identified as a key geographical priority area by the National AIDS Council (National AIDS Council, 2000). According to the National AIDS Council (2004), Luapula Province has an HIV prevalence rate of 11%. This is relatively high when compared to other rural provinces like Northern (8%) and North-Western (9%).
In Mansa District, two contrasting kinds of communities were chosen for the study. One of the communities chosen was largely rural and structurally traditional in organization, and the other is a far more rapidly transforming informal peri-urban shanty settlement which has mushroomed as people have moved to the town centre in search of employment or get involved in business activities. The rural communities selected were in Monga, Kaseba, and Mulonga areas while the peri-urban area was Senema. Within Senema, two communities in areas or wards namely Senama and Nyamuna were interviewed.
A variety of data sources and data collection techniques were used in this study. Secondary data was obtained through literature review of relevant official documents, publications, reports and various articles. Primary data was collected by employing Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods. These PRA methods included semi-structured in-depth interviews with key informants and Focus Group Discussions (FGDs).
Data was mainly collected from the interviews during FGDs. In selecting the respondents for the FGDs, various categories were considered including age, marital status, and traditional marriage counselors. In some cases, the Focus Group Discussions were conducted with males and females separately, and/or people of similar ages. The idea was to enrich the discussions, so that people of different gender and various ages could freely debate various issues such as sexual behavior which are considered culturally sensitive. Through the FGDs, narrative information was obtained from both men and women in the sampled communities on issues of sexual practices as well as the impact of HIV and AIDS on these practices. A total of 350 community people (165 males and 185 females) participated in the seventeen FGDs that were held. The FGDs were organized in such way that the discussions would concentrate on one or two aspects of the study in order to ensure that the issues were exhaustively presented and discussed by the respondents.
In addition to FGDs, semi-structured interviews with key informants such as the elderly (traditional marriage counselors), community leaders such as headmen, and staff working for organizations that operate in the communities (e.g. government departments, NGOs) were conducted. The key informant interviews elicited more detailed information and were done in a relaxed manner. Being alone or in a small group of 2 to 4 people, the key informants were open and comfortable to discuss the sensitive issues under investigation. For instance, some elderly women and men who serve as traditional marriage counselors in their communities were invaluable in informing the researchers on details about the sexual behavior, marriage customs, marital infidelity, sexual cleansing rituals, and so on. Some key informants were interviewed once whilst others were interviewed twice in order to get detailed information or to seek further clarifications on some issues.
The study primarily yielded qualitative data. The data obtained from the FGDs and key informants was edited and verified while in the field. Transcripts of all field notes and interviews were checked for accuracy. The data was analyzed following a thematic procedure. First, to ensure completeness, the data was checked for any gaps. An impressionist summary was then made to obtain trends and meaningful typologies that fit the data and associations identified (Detels, 1997). This information is incorporated in the narrative contained in this paper.
The Aushi and other Bemba speaking people regard marriage and sexual relations between men and women as very important aspects of life. Informants were asked about their views about patterns of sexual behavior in their community. They noted that in the past, there were strong sanctions against boys and girls below the age of 10 engaging in sexual intercourse. Girls were expected to remain chaste until they got married - typically at the age of 12 (See Raising, 2001). Virginity was highly valued as reflected in some of the marriage customs in which the parents of the bride were awarded with special presents or an attractive mpango (bride price) payment when it was proven that the bride was a virgin on her wedding night. These values have been eroded or abandoned by modern influences. Most of the informants, both rural and urban, noted that young people now are sexually active at a tender age - as young as 9 years. They observed that it seems nowadays that adults expect prepubescent boys and girls to play together sexually and that, provided this takes place with a certain amount of discretion, nothing is done to stop it (See Caldwell et al, 1989; Odebiyi and Vivekananda, 1991). Same-sex play in young people is not common in rural areas. Even if homosexuality is becoming common due to modern influences, particularly in urban areas, this study did not examine this in great detail.
In both the rural areas and in peri-urban Senama, informants observed that boys and girls discretely visit each other in their huts/houses, hoping that their voices will not be recognized by people in neighbouring huts. Thus from an early age their future roles as husbands and wives condition the sexual activities of boys and girls. After puberty, young men and women continue to flirt together. Even if the young people are engaged in these sexual activities, they are conscious and aware of the unwritten stipulations that it should be conducted discreetly so that the older people in the community are not forced to notice it, and that unmarried girls should not get pregnant.
With increased knowledge about the dangers posed by the HIV pandemic, a girl who allows herself to be seduced too easily is regarded as foolish and a man who is forever chasing unmarried girls when he should be founding a family is regarded as immature. However, as one informant observed :”the knowledge of HIV and AIDS does not seem to deter teenagers from engaging in sexual activities as is evident from premarital pregnancies.” According to another informant in the FGDs, “premarital pregnancies are now so common that no special stigma attaches to it, though the girl’s parents can force the boy to marry her if they can. If he does not do so, her chances of marriage with another man will be prejudiced, and she will go through life subject to social disapproval.” A legal penalty is enacted for causing the pregnancy of an unmarried girl - if the lover is identified. No social stigma attaches to illegitimate children or apparently to unmarried mothers, though in theory the marriage payment is less for a girl who is already pregnant. In practice there appears to be little difference. These findings about premarital or teenage pregnancies in the communities in Mansa are consistent with the 2001-2002 Zambia Demographic Health Survey (ZDHS) which found that about a third of teenagers (30 percent) aged 15-19 years in Zambia’s Luapula Province has either already had a child or is pregnant with her first child (6 percent). The same survey also found that urban and better educated teens tend to start childbearing later than rural teens and those with less education (CSO, 2003).
It was also noted in the focus group discussions that pre-marital sexual relations are now almost a matter of course, and few unmarried girls are content with only one lover. Some of the factors that have contributed to this situation include the notable decline in polygyny for reasons to be discussed later. Also the increased demands for marriage payments are becoming a deterrent to marriage in circumstances where young men often cannot afford to pay the large amounts demanded and as a result young women form unions without the consent of either of their families or with a modified consent which, in the absence of the usual customary ties, may result in the complete break-up of the relationship at a later stage. These unlegalized unions or cohabitations have become increasingly common and are locally referred to as ‘ichupo buchende’ (unlegalized cohabitations). This happens both in rural and peri-urban areas in Mansa.
An informant in the FGDs observed: “the unlegalized cohabitations or ichupo buchende as practiced in rural and urban Mansa are usually regarded as a temporal livelihood for women and some young teenagers. As far as possible, the men’s initial approach is made in the guise of an offer of love for its own sake. This is common among both local men and itinerant business or fish traders who visit the district. The women usually accept these proposals and welcome the men to their homes. With cohabitation, the woman begins to cook for the man and he gives her money. If possible, such a union may later be converted into a legal marriage, but the majority last only a few weeks or months when the men desert the women.”Ichupo buchende arrangements are frowned upon in the communities. Most people view these with contempt and they view women in such relationships as people with low morals who are simply involved in prostitution or transactional sex. The existence of so many unmarried women who habitually are involved in ichupo buchende arrangements is seen as a potential risk in the spread of HIV in the communities (Caldwell et al, 1989).
Prostitution is commonly practiced particularly in urban Mansa. The poor economic conditions and high levels of unemployment among the female youth have contributed to the increase in the number of young girls and women involving themselves in transactional sex. One individual in the FGDs said: “The need to meet daily food and other requirements has superseded the dangers of contracting HIV and AIDS and these vulnerable women take to local bars and streets in order to offer sexual services. Just like in other major district centers in the country, local bars and nightclubs in Mansa are frequented by young women hoping to pick men ready to pay for sex.” In Senama, where this study was conducted, simple observation and discussions with informants revealed that there are a number of young women whose livelihood is derived from prostitution. Some of the young women involved in prostitution are children of the former employees of the former Mansa Batteries Factory which was closed after a failed privatization sell. Some of them stay in one roomed shacks on their own whilst others stay with their unemployed parents whom they support from prostitution.
Extra-nuptial sexual activities appear to be common both in rural and urban Mansa. Our informants indicated that marital infidelity particularly among the men is an open secret. According to them, they suspected that more married men compared to married women have extramarital sex. This behavior seems to have its roots in the cultural attitudes of men as reflected in local idioms like ‘ubuchende bwa mwaume tabutoba ing’anda’, which literally means that ‘a man’s infidelity is not as grave or serious to warrant the dissolution of a marriage.’ Such attitudes have made men to consider themselves not bound to marital fidelity, and most married men engage in sexual activities with unmarried girls and other men’s wives. According to one key informant, “these men who involve themselves in extra- nuptial sex usually just respect stringent regulations like avoidance of married women for fear of being charged or fined high costs in damages if they are caught committing adultery.The extent of extra-nuptial sex in peri-urban areas like Senama is quite clear when one can clearly observe men who openly flirt with the unmarried girls they meet in local bars or at beer parties. Some of these unmarried girls are also on the prowl in search of prospective husbands or simply prostituting themselves to both single and married men.”
As mentioned above, the lack of employment opportunities and poverty in both peri-urban and rural areas has led some of the teenage girls to involve themselves in prostitution in order to survive. A man spoke of the level of extra-nuptial sex in Senama as follows: “There are a lot of young, single pubescent girls who stay on there and have fallen on hard times. The girls just prostitute themselves at local bars and night clubs offering themselves to anyone including married men they know very well. The girls even prefer married men to jobless single men because some of them are stable and have regular incomes. Some of these married men even end up secretly maintaining these girls as their concubines for extended periods without their wives finding out.”
Poverty or economic hardships have also led to an increase in concubinage or ichupo buchende arrangements in the study area. Informants in FGDs noted that the spread of concubinage has commonly become a means of securing the sexual satisfactions of polygyny without the economic burden. It was noted that girls remain unmarried until later ages than in the past, even after betrothal. The girls may have to wait several years for marriage and meanwhile, they simply are taken up as concubines by men. Widows also refuse much more often than in the past to be ‘inherited’ by relatives of their husband. These widows also sometimes end up in concubinage or ichupo buchende relationships with some local men. Informants also observed that some men whose wives are barren sometimes take concubines, and though they have no legal right to the children, they may actually gain custody of them through having contributed to their support while young. Sometimes the relationship is openly recognized by the woman’s relatives. The man gives her all the support and assistance that he would a wife, and the only difference between such a union and marriage is that mpango or bride price has not been paid and therefore no legal claims are enforceable on either side. Regardless, in such relationships can be found every degree of stability and of responsibility on the man’s part for the needs of the woman and her children. This finding seems to be consistent with the view that "African society recognizes as a distinct phenomena,(sic) longer term girlfriends, mistresses [and] outside wives, who partly serve in urban areas as alternatives to polygynous married wives" (Caldwell et al, 1989, p189; Odebiyi and Vivekananda, 1991).
The informants however noted that the sexual behavior of husbands is not laissez faire. It is moderated by teachings on some belief systems which place sanctions on extra-nuptial sexual relations. For instance, the Aushi and other Bemba speaking people believe in a mystical disease or condition called nchila which is supposed to afflict a household if a husband has sexual intercourse with a woman other than his wife. A key informant noted:“Nchila manifests itself in the sickness of his wife and this is particularly severe when the wife is pregnant. Generally a man may commit adultery and his wife can have no case against him; but when she is pregnant he is under a moral obligation to sleep only with her and, if he is a polygynist, with his other wives. His infidelity or adultery endangers his wife’s life, for it is believed that the nchila will cause the wife to experience a difficult labour and she or the child may die. The pregnant woman is also in mortal danger if she herself commits adultery and thus there is a common obligation of fidelity on both man and wife throughout pregnancy. When a difficult labour is experienced, the midwife is obligated to call on the husband to confess the adulteries he may have committed while his wife was pregnant so that the child can be born. She may also tell the woman to confess as a way of neutralizing the nchila.” It is in beliefs such as nchila which have a stabilizing effect in sexual behavior among married people. The men may fear for the fate of their child and for that reason be faithful to their wives while they are pregnant.
The suspected high levels of extra-nuptial sexual activities among the men does not imply that women do not object to such infidelity, but rather that they do not have effective weapons against it (Reid, 1990). If a woman suspects that her husband is having an affair with another woman, they can withhold their favors as if in a strike. She may refuse to cook for him, saying he should be getting his meals outside as well. In extreme cases, women may run to their relatives to have a family council intervene to resolve their problems. If this does not succeed, they have recourse to local courts which usually resolve these cases based on the available evidence of marital infidelity. Resolutions could either be the granting of a divorce or fining the other woman involved in the extra-nuptial relationship for marriage interference.
Even though Aushi women are ideally supposed to be faithful to their husbands, the FGD informants indicated that some of them are involved in adulterous relationships. This is common in both urban and rural areas, and according to the informants, they suspected that some of the married women have extra-nuptial sex. Sexual dissatisfaction and poverty seem to be the major factors that lead women to be involved in extramarital relationships. One woman in a rural area spoke of extra-nuptial affairs as follows: “Most married women here have boyfriends, but we cannot tell who. This happens because their husbands cannot serve them strongly enough. But even if their husbands could satisfy them, they still must have someone outside. These boyfriends from outside give them money, ointments and soap and please them in many ways. The married women have affairs with both unmarried and married men. However, they do not trust unmarried men because they may spread the story to all their friends. A married man will keep the secret. Some women prefer married men because they are considered to be relatively free from HIV and AIDS and more secure financially.”
Informants did note that marital infidelity among women is not as widespread as it is among the men due to the strong cultural sanctions against adulterous behavior of women. For instance, it is traditionally accepted that a woman should be beaten if her husband learned that she had engaged in sexual activities with another man, or even suspected that she had. The informants indicated that some men might kill the wife or her lover if caught in flagrante, but no cases could be brought forward (either past or current) that this had ever happened in the study areas. The husband is more likely to demand a payment from the man. We were informed in Kabunda village that a man who was caught and admitted to committing adultery with a married woman was charged a K20,000 fine (equivalent to about $4.50 based on the exchange rate at the time of the study).
Extra-nuptial sex or adultery by a wife, as elsewhere, is not only an infringement of her husband’s rights for which in the past both she and her lover might be severely punished, but is also believed to have mystical or supernatural consequences . As mentioned above, the Aushi and other Bemba speaking people believe that if a woman commits adultery, she will be afflicted by nchila and her infidelity cannot go undetected. These findings on extra-nuptial sex are consistent with the findings of the 2001-2002 Zambia Demographic Health Survey (ZDHS) which collected information on sexual behavior. Respondents were asked about the last three sexual partners in the 12 months preceding the survey. Two types of partners were recognized: those who are cohabiting with the respondent (mostly spouses) and those who are not cohabiting with the respondent at the time of the last sexual encounter. The ZDHS findings show that married men are more likely than married women to have multiple partners. Overall, 19 percent of married men have had one or more partners other than their spouse or cohabiting partner in the previous year. The practice of having extramarital partners is common among younger married men (aged 20-29 years) and among those living in urban areas. In the case of Luapula Province, the ZDHS found that 9 percent of married men and less than 1 percent of married women have had one or more sex partners other than their spouse or cohabiting partner in the previous year (CSO, 2003).
Among the Aushi, like most other Zambian tribal groupings, where marriage secures children to perpetuate the father’s group, it is usual for widows to be inherited by a brother or any other relative of the dead man, and this heir may have an absolute or a prior claim to them. Colson (1960), writing of the Tonga, interprets what is commonly called ‘the inheritance of widows’ as ‘the duty of the family to provide another husband for the widowed wife of a member of their line’, and suggests that in the past this was the main reason for polygyny.
Among the Aushi and other Bemba speaking tribes, it is necessary on the death of either spouse for the survivor to have sexual intercourse with a relative of the dead partner. If this act is omitted, intercourse with any other person is believed or held to be rendered dangerous by the anger of the spirit of the dead person. Some men are afraid to marry a widow who has not been through the rite. The widows were normally inherited by their husband’s relatives and according to informants in the FGDs, in the past, an Aushi woman could not refuse to be inherited. However, informants said that women now have a right to refuse to be inherited because of risk of the HIV and AIDS associated with the sexual cleansing and inheritance rituals. The following explains the Aushi traditional sexual cleansing ritual which is conducted as a way of widow inheritance and for official recognition of a levirate marriage.
The widow is expected to have ritual sex with a man who is a relative to her deceased husband. If the man who is selected for the sexual cleansing is married, he gets permission from his wife to be allowed to carry out the ritual. Permission is granted by his wife giving him a piece of cloth or chitenge material which he carries to the house where he will have ritual sexual intercourse with the widow. In cases where the wife refuses to give him a cloth to symbolize the permission, some men (husbands) usually just steal clothes from their wives to be presented to the widow.
The sexual cleansing ritual is usually done at night. The man and other relatives of the deceased go to the house of the widow and the party are ushered into the house by the relatives of the widow. The man is left in the house with the widow to have sexual intercourse during the night to signify the sexual cleansing. Early in the morning on the following day, the relatives of both the deceased man and the widow go to check on the house where they had left the man and the widow. When the man in the house hears the noise of his relatives outside, he strikes a match stick and throws it outside the house through the door and shouts out saying ‘Ino ni ng’anda yandi’, literally meaning ‘This is my home/house.’ The lit match and statement is a sign to those who are gathered outside that the man and widow had copulated and the sexual cleansing ritual has taken place.
If the man who has sexually cleansed the widow is single and declares interest in marrying her, further rituals are carried out. The first involves the preparation of a nshima meal (nshima is a hard porridge made with maize or cassava flour. It is a staple food in Zambia and is usually taken with any type of relish like vegetables, beef, chicken, fish, and so on). The meal is consumed by the widow and the man out in the bush at a crossing of two bush paths. They ritually throw some lumps of the food on the bush path to symbolically appease or feed the spirit of the deceased so that he should rest in peace and never arise to haunt or trouble the couple.
On the same day, late in the afternoon, the relatives of both the man and woman (widow) will gather for blessing the marriage. They spread a reed mat on the floor where the man and the widow who have now decided to marry will sit facing their relatives. Two plates will be placed in front of the couple, one for each one of them. The relatives will then start saying blessings and moral teachings (Ukushikula) to the couple and putting money in both plates. After the blessings, the relatives will leave the couple and they are officially recognized in a levirate marriage. The man is recognized as the custodian of the deceased’s children and head of the house, and he inherits some of the property that was left by the deceased. Some property is also shared with some relatives.
If the man who has sexually cleansed a widow is married and has opted to marry her as a second wife, he will stay with the second wife (widow) for a few days before going to his first wife to report or inform her about his decision. The sexual cleansing and inheritance of widowers is similar to what has been described above. However, it is more common to have single women/girls than married ones to be taken to the widower for sexual cleansing.
However, with the advent of HIV and AIDS, the Aushi and other tribal groups have devised alternative methods of sexual cleansing. According to informants in the FGDs, these alternative methods do not involve direct sex acts with the widow or widower. For example, one alternative method or ritual that is commonly practiced in the study area involves the selection of a married couple who are relatives of the deceased spouse to perform the ritual. The selected married couple performs sexual intercourse in their home. This couple is given a bead bracelet before the sex act. After the sex act, they smear the bead bracelet with their bodily secretions or fluids that are exchanged during copulation. When this is done, the bead bracelet is referred to as “akalungu akakaba” literally meaning “a hot bead bracelet”. This “hot bead bracelet” is then delivered by the couple to the widow or widower to wear on his/her wrist. The bracelet is worn until wear and tear causes it to fall off. When this happens, the widow or widower is finally considered to have been cleansed of the spirit of his/her spouse and is free to re-marry anyone of their choice.
Another alternative cleansing ritual simply involves the smearing of maize flour on the body and face of the widow or widower by an appointed relative of the deceased spouse. The white maize flour symbolizes purity and the ritual of smearing the widow or widower with white maize flour signifies a cleansing or appeasement of the spirit of the dead spouse. After going through this ritual, the widow or widower is also considered to have been cleansed of the spirit of his/her spouse and is free to re-marry anyone of their choice.
Such alternative cleansing rituals have become more popular with increased awareness of the HIV and AIDS risk involved in sexual cleansing. Some traditional leaders, NGOs and the church have been raising awareness among the local people so that they abandon sexual cleansing practices. Some level of success has been achieved in this. However, it will take a long time to completely change some traditional beliefs. The efforts to change have been negatively affected by factors like fear and poverty. An informant in the FGD noted: “‘strong beliefs and fear of the spirit of the dead spouse compels widows to undergo sexual cleansing and this exposes them to greater risks of being exposed to HIV infection. Due to poverty, some widows are aware of the risks of contracting HIV but are forced to take part in sexual cleansing rituals.” Some widows find themselves in desperate situations upon the death of their husbands. With the loss of a breadwinner and cultural pressures or sanctions, some widows willingly and/or reluctantly agree to be sexually cleansed so that they are inherited. By being inherited and accepting to be in a levirate marriage, they see this as an opportunity to have support from the heir (husband) to continue maintaining their children.
Sexual relations and practices are influenced by gender power dynamics. The power dynamics between men and women in some of the rural communities in Zambia have not significantly changed with modernity or with the awareness of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. Like most Zambian ethnic groups, the standard expectations among the Aushi communities in Mansa are that the man is dominant in the marital relationship and the woman subservient. This order is maintained through major institutional regulations and customs. Some aspects of socialization tend to enforce male dominance. The instructions from Banacimbusa (traditional female trainers) to women when they are preparing for marriage have an influence on how women relate to their husbands. For instance, women are expected to be fully obedient to their husbands. As was pointed out by a Banacimbusa, “A girl is given advice on married life; for instance, she is told that a woman looks after the house. She should collect firewood and water, cook food for her husband and children. She should keep her house clean and work hard in the field. She must allow her husband to have sexual intercourse with her whenever he wants to. She must tell her husband when she is menstruating, and avoid sexual intercourse or sleep with him on the same bed. She should sleep on a separate reed mat on the floor.”
These teachings on the relationship between a man and his wife, at least for the first years of their marriage, emphasize the importance of the dominant role of men in relationships. Women are expected to submit to the sexual demands of their husbands. Husbands can beat wives who refuse to have sexual intercourse for no good reason other than that they are menstruating. The subservient role of women in relations makes them vulnerable and they fail to negotiate for safer sex practices. Most rural women have maintained the traditional teaching and this is common especially among the poor and vulnerable women who are still compelled to engage in risky sexual practices like sexual cleansing. Informants in the FGDs noted that even though sexual cleansing and levirate marriages are declining, there are some cases in which these are still taking place particularly among the poor in rural areas.
Some of the study findings may be used as entry points for policy intervention. In this regard, three findings deserve mention. First, traditional marriage and sexual practices that involve multiple partners and risky sexual behaviors have been declining over time partly due to increased awareness about HIV and AIDS. Among the traditional marriage and sexual practices which are declining is sexual cleansing. Levirate marriages have also declined due to abandonment of sexual cleansing. The traditional leaders and faith-based organizations have played an important role in influencing change in the traditional sexual practices like sexual cleansing and levirate marriages in the communities and this deserves serious consideration by policy-makers. The government and NGOs should therefore recognize the enormous potential in partnering with religious and cultural leaders on sexual and reproductive health issues in HIV and AIDS prevention programs or activities. The government and other agencies like NGOs should therefore continue promoting awareness among traditional leaders and communities about the HIV and AIDS pandemic and channel resources to rural communities since these areas are in desperate need of long-term programs to combat the pandemic.
Second, the study findings revealed that certain risky sexual practices such as sexual cleansing and levirate marriages have persisted in the study area, mainly because of entrenched traditions and gender inequality which places women in a subservient position. Men play a dominant role in most relationships, while women and girls are generally expected to be submissive. As a result, most women lack confidence, skills and the knowledge necessary to negotiate safe sexual relationships with men and to make independent lifestyle choices. In this regard, policy interventions should aim at empowering women with more information about the dangers of risky sexual practices. In disseminating information, the government should fully consult influential cultural custodians within the communities such as Banacimbusa (traditional female trainers) and Bashibukombe (traditional male trainers) on how to devise strategies that promote sexual behavior change. The government should also facilitate and enhance collaboration among Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) and traditional leaders in order to promote and implement programs that will lead to positive behavior change by sensitizing communities about risky traditional practices such as sexual cleansing and levirate marriages. Such interventions can, for instance, empower women and support culturally sensitive methods of condom distribution as a means of preventing the spread of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.
The study also revealed that the rise in poverty levels has led to an increase in transactional sex and marital infidelity among unemployed youth and vulnerable women. Since people's efforts to change risky sexual behavior is often thwarted by factors such as poverty and gender inequalities, it is therefore recommended that future interventions target contextual limitations such as household poverty, emancipation of women and literacy to achieve positive results. In other words, government or other interventions should have an integrated multi-sectoral approach to addressing the HIV and AIDS pandemic. A multi-sectoral approach will ensure that issues of poverty that are at the root of the HIV and AIDS pandemic are addressed. A supportive social and economic environment at all levels of society will enhance the response by individuals, families, and communities to interventions being promoted to prevent the spread of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in Zambia.
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