Sweets, wrappers and HIV

Zimbabweans renegotiate sex in the age of AIDS.

Published January 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I was a little disappointed as we barreled into a dusty row of shops my Harare escorts called a "growth point." It was World AIDS Day in December 1999, and the rural community of Chikwaka, Zimbabwe, was about to have its first full-scale AIDS awareness and personal empowerment rally. I'd traveled the rough dirt roads of Chikwaka a few weeks earlier, tagging along with a group of Harare women as they shuttled between the community's housing compounds and schoolyards soliciting support for the day's event. The response was largely welcoming, and I had been expecting to face a large crowd and daunting reporting job. So where was everybody?

Chikwaka is literally not on the map. It sits along the main road to Mozambique, about 45 minutes east of Harare, Zimbabwe's bustling capital. When the Harare women with whom I was traveling (from the Women and AIDS Support Network) began to launch an HIV prevention project here, they had to hire a cartographer to map out the area. Juru, the "growth point" at Chikwaka's center, is on the map. It sprang up in the early- to mid-1980s, following independence, as a service depot for the hordes of men -- truck drivers, bus conductors, migrant workers -- who pass through on their way to and from Harare every day. Among Juru's attractions for travelers are a bottle store or two, a post office, a clinic, a motel and a nightclub. Chikwaka itself has pretty much one thing to offer these men: High school-age girls to meet at the nightclub and have sex with.

And so it turns out there were actually plenty of people around for the AIDS Day rally. But they were all high school students. And as they gathered in Juru that morning, preparing to march through town in defiant declaration that their bodies would no longer be one of the service depot's attractions, the traveling men had begun mingling among them. The teachers thought it best to hide their students inside the clinic until the empowering began.

Men in Zimbabwe who refuse to wear condoms during sex have a saying: "I don't take my sweets with the wrapper on." But with awareness about AIDS at an all-time high, these men know that wrapper-free sweets can kill them these days. So for many, such as these men in Juru, the answer is to have a girlfriend young enough to be relatively inexperienced when he finds her. "Of late, they have discovered these older women; they are now affected by this virus," explains Watson Mushaninga, a counselor at one of Chikwaka's schools. "So they are now going down to these ones, because they know that they are virgins."

Which creates a tragic irony. HIV can lie dormant for years, so if you don't get tested for it, you won't know you have it until you develop AIDS. And many of the men who think they are avoiding HIV by sleeping with young women -- probably around 30 percent of them -- are already positive. As a result, young women increasingly are too. New HIV testing centers in Zimbabwe's cities are finding that the virus is spreading fastest among two populations: Middle-aged men and women between 15 and 29 years old. There is no way of knowing how far HIV has actually spread in Chikwaka, or other rural communities like it. The closest place for a person to get an HIV test is in Harare (there are only five walk-in testing centers in Zimbabwe, all located in cities), and the notion of paying to take a bus to Harare just to get a test is laughable in Chikwaka. But given Harare's HIV infection rates, and the girls' testimony about Juru's male visitors and their passion for condom-free sex, there's little doubt HIV is steadily creeping forward among this community's youth.

There are more than 22 million people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, which is two-thirds of the world's total HIV infections. Southern Africa is in the worst shape. The four countries with the highest HIV infection rates in the world are in the region -- Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, all with anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of their adult populations believed to be HIV positive. Zimbabwe leads the world, with as many as 70 percent of women tested at prenatal clinics in certain areas HIV positive.

International health experts warn that the catastrophe unfolding in Africa is everybody's problem. Dr. D.A. Henderson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's department of epidemiology and international health, directed the global small pox eradication campaign. He says the world should learn from history's viral epidemics that national borders are porous when it comes to infectious diseases. He remembers when there were only about 50 cases of malaria a year in the United States; today there are around 1,000.

"We have now a far more mobile population than we've had before," he warns. "So if we are talking strictly from the health standpoint in the U.S., it is clearly in our best interest to be involved."

Over the course of the last year, the world's policy makers have begun to tune in to such warnings. At the Clinton administration's prompting, the United Nations Security Council convened to discuss Africa's epidemic on Jan. 10 -- a stunning first-ever Security Council meeting on a health matter. In an address to the gathering, Vice President Al Gore announced the administration's proposal for a $150 million boost in U.S. spending on global AIDS programs next fiscal year. If ultimately approved by Congress, the funding boost would be the largest in U.S. history for global AIDS programs. Whether or not Chikwaka's students will notice is another question. The United Nations estimates the price tag just for effective prevention programs in Africa is around $1.3 billion.

The explanations for why Africa has been hit so disproportionately hard by this virus are certainly manifold, and far too complex to pin on any one villain. But Chikwaka's story reveals at least one clear culprit. For, ultimately, this virus is about sex. More directly, in Africa, it's often about predatory, unequal and unsafe sexual relationships that breed disease.

Mushaninga and his colleagues say the problem in Chikwaka is poverty. Zimbabwe never really recovered from a regional drought in the early 1990s, and the agricultural sector has suffered. So parents often live in Harare or other cities where they can find work, leaving their children in the hands of grandparents or single aunts. Money is short and adult supervision shorter. And the men who pass through Juru, necessarily working class and with money in their pockets, are more than willing to buy everything from groceries to clothes for a new girlfriend.

But poverty doesn't spread HIV; unsafe sex does. And in relationships between rural schoolgirls and cosmopolitan older men, it's not hard to figure out who makes the decisions about whether or not the couple will use condoms. Which brings us back to sweets and wrappers. Chikwaka's fight is a microcosm of the larger fight all Southern African societies struggling against HIV are now waging -- a battle to empower women, young and old, in their sex lives.

That's a lot easier said than done. It's not just schoolgirls who cede rights to set the terms of sex. In November, a Zimbabwe High Court judge issued a controversial ruling that dominated street corner banter in Harare for weeks. The ruling stated simply that "marital rape," when a husband physically forces his wife to have sex, should be outlawed. Before his ruling, sex between a husband and wife was exempt from rape statutes. Prevailing orthodoxy continues to condone male ownership of the female body.

This summer, Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF Party dispatched teams of commissioners to all corners of the country to interview ordinary citizens about what they want to see in a new constitution currently being drafted. (It was an absurd exercise, actually intended to deflect demands for political reform.) Citizens sounded off on a stunning range of topics -- from witchcraft to the balance of power between branches of government -- with an equally stunning diversity of opinion. But on a few social issues, according to the commissioners' reports, respondents sent up a clear voice. One of those issues was the lobola, a dowry paid to the family of a bride. Urban women's groups have advocated for its abolition, arguing that it encourages cash-strapped families to literally sell off their daughters. But the commissioners' reports showed strong support for the dowry. As one report summarized respondents' views: "If there is no lobola paid then all wives/women will be free agents who can be taken by anyone."

So increasingly, female AIDS activists and public health advocates are trying to explain that, in a landscape such as this, no amount of sexual empowerment will allow a wife or girlfriend to demand that her promiscuous partner wear a condom. Not to mention the stereotypes associated with a woman who might have such gumption: A recent study found that 56 percent of men and 47 percent of women believed "women found with condoms are 'loose.'" As one female South African AIDS activist puts it, "People have been trying to empower me for seven years; I don't feel powerful."

The new take on sexual empowerment would make it a male concern as well. Much has been written about Latin America's struggle with "machismo" male identity -- which measures masculinity, and its associated status, in direct relation to sexual conquest. Africa has its own version. "People are not legally polygamous, so to speak, but actually it has become accepted. For Zimbabwe men, there's nothing wrong with having a girlfriend if you are married," explains Regis Mtutu, who helped found a national support group in Zimbabwe for men who want to encourage equal personal relationships between genders. There is "this sort of false image of manhood. If you're a man, you ought to have maybe a girlfriend on the side. You have paid lobola, and it basically means you have bought your wife."

Mtutu says people who want to change this image need empowerment too. There's a Shona word used to describe men such as Mtutu: kudyiswa, referring to a man who is "spoon fed," or has been cowed by his wife. In the English version, the man is called a "stay soft," a play on the name of a fabric softener, implying that he has been given a potion by his wife to keep him in line. "I also need to be empowered. I also need to be strong to challenge that false image of the man," Mtutu says. "Part of the problem is that if you portray a new image, then there's something wrong with you. There's something wrong with the way you related to your mother, to your sister. If you don't have girlfriends, it does not mean that you are abnormal!"

The idea of empowering men to take sexual responsibility is growing in popularity. Mtutu's group -- Padare, the Shona word for a traditional meeting of village men -- has seven chapters. They're mainly in cities (only one is in a rural community), but that's where all the men are anyway -- where there's work. Each chapter has 50 or 60 members, he says. Another program, the Matabeleland AIDS Council, leads gender workshops at nearly 100 predominately male job sites around Zimbabwe's second major city, Bulawayo.

Bonginkosi Sibanda runs the council's gender program. She describes one client, a teenage girl, who is dating an older man who doesn't allow her to touch his penis when having sex. The man says that honor is reserved for his wife. "So if things are that way," she asks, "if you can't even touch this person who you are supposed to be having sex with, how do you even start talking about telling him, 'wear a condom'?"

Sibanda explains the problem is confounded by women such as her client, who begin to accept the idea of their partner owning not only their bodies, but a few others as well. "The women come in and [say], 'Oh, he has more than one partner, but you know what men are like.'"

It is this logic that the Harare women who brought me to Chikwaka are teaching the girls here to reject. They are also trying to teach the boys sexual responsibility while they're still young. But even that's a battle. Counselors from the local high schools say that since the older girls date men they meet in Juru, the older boys in turn date the school's younger girls. Unfortunately, Mushaninga says, these relationships are no more equal than those the older girls find. Sex is often contractual: You let me stick it in without a condom, and I'll take you as my girlfriend. And so the cycle begins.

Still, there's room for hope. A U.S. Agency for International Development-contracted marketing firm, Population Services International, now mass markets donor-subsidized male and female condoms. They've sold more than 350,000 female condoms in Zimbabwe since 1997, more than anywhere else in Africa. Market research shows the average user is 20 to 26 years old. She's also more educated, and more likely to come from a place like Harare than a place like Chikwaka. But it's a start. The agency's research also shows condom use in general is increasing in the country. But tellingly, 67 percent of women report having never had sex with a condom. Only 38 percent of men make the same statement. That's because men are increasingly willing to use condoms with casual partners or prostitutes, but not with their spouses or girlfriends -- regardless of their own sexual history. It may explain why more monogamous married women report feeling at risk for HIV than single women. Forewarned may eventually lead to forearmed.

About 70 high school students and their counselors marched through Juru on World AIDS Day, singing songs and waving banners declaring themselves off limits. They then gathered in the clearing across from the bottle store and performed skits showing how they would handle untoward "propositions" in the future. It was an inspired celebration, and, in the end, we all got our touch of empowerment for the day.

But then came a reminder of how sticky this empowerment thing can be. As I stood listening to another counselor, Elliot Murove, translate the final skit, he suddenly stopped and pointed to the road. A police truck had pulled up, and the officer was motioning a schoolgirl of about 16 to his car window. "They are making an appointment even now!" Murove exclaimed in disbelief. He claimed to have confronted this particular officer about courting his students in the past, obviously to no avail. The two laughed and joked for a few minutes, and the girl hopped in the truck. They drove off, leaving the AIDS Day celebration, and all its empowerment, behind. Murove belched an uneasy, incredulous laugh as he watched the truck lumber up the dirt and gravel road into Juru's residential area. "She is gone," he said.

By Kai Wright

Kai Wright is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

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