Women and girls across Southern Africa continue to bear the brunt of traditions that support multiple concurrent partnerships (MCP) and other uncouth sexual practices.
Testimonies from community members and other stakeholders working with Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) in the Communicating HIV Prevention in Southern Africa project show that the region has many cultural practices that expose women and girls to HIV/AIDS and related complications. This is also corroborated by statistics from international organisations leading the fight against HIV and AIDS, which indicate that the majority of people living with HIV and AIDS in Southern Africa are women and girls.
For example, the 2010 UNAIDS global report shows that sub-Saharan Africa is home to about 76% of all HIV-positive women in the world. The majority of these are girls and women aged 15-24 years.
In some parts of Malawi, these practices include the ‘hyena’ practice whereby a man in the community is selected to help with impregnating a woman in another family and would be allowed to only visit this woman at night like a ‘hyena’. This exposes both the man and the woman, depending on who is positive. The practice also leads to emotional torture to the woman as they have to sleep with someone they don’t know, without consent. Similarly in Zambia, tradition embraces the practice of having many partners in the form of wife inheritance, whereby if a husband dies, the woman will be married to the brother so that she stays in the same family.
The concept of wife inheritance is also practised in Swaziland whereby culture compels a woman to marry a male relative when her husband dies. The family arranges that she should be inherited by a male relative of the family (ukungena). The state of the population report by UNFPA and Ministry of Health and Social Welfare of 2009 also mentioned that these customary practices hinder HIV prevention.
In Lesotho, MCP used to be a normal feature of Basotho kin-based social organization through polygamy and marriages in cases of death of the husband or wife (Ho kenela). However, in the contemporary times, MCP is also socially accepted and looked at as a situation that men are encouraged to have. For example, there is a saying in Sesotho “monna ke mokopu oa nama, mosali ke kh’abeche oa ipopa” literally translated as “a man is like a pumpkin plant that can creep around while a woman should be like a cabbage plant”. In a union where both partners are negative, the woman is rendered most vulnerable because when the man starts creeping around like a pumpkin, there are high chances of him acquiring HIV and infecting the woman.
All these issues as discussed here make it critical to address social drivers of the epidemic and cultural issues that fuel HIV transmission.
In order to effectively address some of these social drivers, communities need access to platforms to dialogue and behavior centred communication to challenge their own beliefs and practices. PSAf’s Radio Listening Clubs and Interactive Radio Programmes are among the some effective platforms that can help local communities engage in behaviour change dialogues among themselves, challenging their own beliefs and practices and mobilizing each other to take responsibility in the issues of HIV prevention and to take action. These approaches also enable communities to engage the experts, policy makers and decision makers on HIV Prevention policies and programmes.
Sustained behaviour change requires sustained commitment to ensure that every opportunity is galvanized to dialogue on such deep-rooted practices. These will ensure that there is more challenge to the attitudes and beliefs which will in turn will change behaviour.