Empowering Women to Rescue Zambia from AIDS
Chilufia Mwaba is a beautiful and resolute Zambian in her late twenties.
Her short hairstyle highlights a lively, sensually featured face. Her
plain outfits unveil nonchalantly but generously the polished dark skin
of her décolleté. She sits smiling at us with poise from her desk at the
Society for Family Health's headquarters, a modest building situated in
Lusaka's outskirts. She is in charge of the promotion of AIDS-preventing
tools among the Zambian population, a crucial sector in her society.
She explains to us the main reason that the Society for Family Health
exists is to cut the spread of HIV/AIDS-a titanic task in the
sub-Saharan country Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), where the
epidemic runs rampant, affecting 20 percent of the population.
Nevertheless, this assertive young woman is not discouraged. She spells
out the Society's comprehensive and very ambitious information program:
its main target is the young. Over the next year, the Society is
scheduled to address classes in a hundred high schools all over the
country, three times at each school, to inform students about how to
avoid contagion. Correct information is-according to Mwaba-the key to
salvaging this drifting country where AIDS is dragging life expectancy
down to 39 years, the lowest in decades.
Among the young, the Society especially targets young girls, who are the
most badly affected. In Africa, 50 percent of new HIV infections occur
in women-taking the world's prevalence for women to a high 40 percent.
In Zambia, the wide age gap between sexual partners makes the 15-19 age
group five times as likely to be infected as males. The widespread
custom of the sugar daddies-older men having sex with adolescent girls
by giving them sweets, or sometimes paying their school
fees-contributes, as older men spread the disease among them. The peak
ages for AIDS cases are 20-29 for females and 30-39 for males.
The Society tells girls at the schools they visit to use condoms every
time they have sex, Mwaba tells us. "We are also trying to go back to
the olden times; we're trying to get the younger generation to treasure
virginity and to keep it as long as they can." And the youths seem to be
listening: according to the Ministry of Health in Zambia, AIDS figures
have begun to improve among the 15-to-19 age group, dropping from 28
percent in 1993 down to 15 percent in 1998 in the capital city of
Lusaka. Nevertheless, young women in the 15-19 age group are five times
as likely to be infected as males in the same age group. Here, sexual
inequality literally means death.
Nora Mumba, Zambia's most prestigious woman writer, works at the library
of the University of Zambia, an elegant area that stands in stark
contrast to the dismal slums making up the belt of the capital city. She
is a strikingly African-looking woman of 40 or so: Her very dark, smooth
face is lit by the intensity of her eyes, yet shaded by a veil of
sadness. She amiably recounts how in the old days, girls went through a
sexual initiation rite. Pubertal girls retired to a sheltered place
outside the tribal village with a sage woman who initiated them to the
art of becoming a wife and a mother. Marital sex was valued: besides
being instructed to keep their virginity before marriage, girls were
given accurate instructions about sex and were taught sexual practices
to please their husbands. Now some people point to that rite as the
reason for the epidemic, as it laid the foundation for a sex-positive
culture. In fact, Mumba believes, it is precisely the loss of these
instructions, which have not been replaced by any other code, that has
caused so much evil. In her view, sex-ed in schools cannot replace such
a unique event as the girls' sexual initiation.
However, those ancient rules cannot measure up to today's requirements,
as Ms. Manango, a young and pleasant woman in her thirties and Africare
official, tells us. A remnant of those ancient rules is also dry sex,
the practice of introducing drying herbs into the vagina to dry and
narrow the canal. Once an innocuous practice performed to please
boyfriends or husbands, dry sex has now become a serious health hazard:
the sores or lesions on the vaginal walls caused by rubbing facilitate
the transfer of HIV into the blood stream. Manango heats up when she
says that dry sex will not be dispensed with easily: not even AIDS will
make women do away with that painful practice, she explains, because
they want to please men, and in Zambia, a woman has to please her
husband because he is her provider. Only a minority of Zambian women can
fend for themselves and their families, as many are out of work or, if
employed, are paid a pittance. Moreover, women's economic dependence on
their husbands makes it impossible for a woman to say 'no' to sex, even
if she knows that he has had sex with other women and may have AIDS.
Elizabeth Garuti, founder of Rainbow, a private-funded NGO devoted to
providing small credits and microeconomics training to the poorest,
welcomes us warmly in her small, humble house in Ndola, the largest city
in the Copperbelt. A busy woman in her early forties, she directs this
flourishing entrepreneurial organization to help the 1,500,000 AIDS
orphans in the country become self-sufficient. She says NGOs have asked
the government to declare a state of national calamity, as they do if
there is a war or a drought. Asked about traditional practices like dry
sex, she explains that to be virile, men are expected to have
intercourse several times during one session. Dry sex helps them finish
early so they can start all over again. In Zambia, sex boosts men's
The prevalece of AIDS also has a paralyzing effect on the country's
economy. "Nowadays funerals are a mass phenomenon and people have to
take lots and lots of days off to attend them," Garuti explains. "If
they did not, they would be suspected of having caused the dead person's
death. In Zambia, there are no natural deaths. They all must have a
cause and a perpetrator. That is why when a man dies, his wife is blamed
for his death and she used to be stripped of all the family's
possessions. Therefore, loosing a husband spelled also economic ruin for
a wife. Now this has been changed by a new law, but traditional
practices linger on."
The promiscuity embedded in certain traditional practices also accounts
for the spread of the disease. Through polygamous marriages, making up
30%, a man can pass on the infection to many women. Furthermore, a widow
must be cleansed of her husband's spirit. To do so, she has to have sex
with one of her late husband's male relatives. Nora Mumba had to
struggle fiercely not to go through that rite when she lost her beloved
husband. Asked about cleansing, she says that women themselves believe
they are possessed by the evil spirit of their husband and are eager to
do everything in their power to get rid of it. They are warned against
the future danger of AIDS, but they fear the present threat of the evil
spirit and will choose to get rid of it even though they risk getting
Father Tomazin's parish, committed to feeding 300 AIDS orphans daily,
has a host of home-carers assisting AIDS patients in Matero, Lusaka's
poorest slum. Nevertheless, when it comes to AIDS prevention, Father
Tomazin preaches only education and abstinence. "Condoms promote
promiscuity and sin," he declares. However, the humble and committed
Catholic nuns and monks, who work on the front line in the country's
remote areas, do teach and promote the use of condoms both for HIV/AIDS
prevention and for contraception. These women and men, grappling with
the problem of feeding hundreds of malnourished children in Catholic
food shelters every day, can certainly sympathize with the torment of a
mother who is unable to feed her child.
Umberto Davoli writes in his book of Bemba's proverbs that women, "both
wives and serfs to their husbands" are the very backbone of Zambian
society. Throughout the countryside, women, rather than men, seem
occupied in all sorts of chores. They are the homemakers and the
providers, the mothers and the farmers, the cooks and the traders. In
the evenings, they even find the strength to entertain their
communities. They do all this while nurturing one baby in the womb and
"This has made African women very strong," Davoli romanticizes. But alas
this is not the whole story. A study by the University of Zambia headed
by demographer Buleti Nsemukila found that 18% of Zambian women between
the ages of 12 and 50 died from complications related to childbearing.
The study found that the maternal death rate was highest in the Eastern
Province of Zambia, where it reached 56%. Some towns in the area are
real flash points of maternal death.
Poverty-everyone agrees-is the real killer. It is at one time the cause
and the consequence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As Sister Leonia, a Polish
catholic nun running a hospice for terminal AIDS patients told us,
impoverished people have very few joys in their hard lives. Sex is one
of these. They know they will die for one reason or another-there are so
many lethal diseases in Zambia! AIDS may sometimes seem the "nicest" way
to do it. Far gone seems the time when Zambia was the wealthiest country
in southern Africa. Paradoxically, wealth that prevailed before the
country's independence, in the heyday of the loathed colonialism.
Where poverty is rampant, the weakest suffer most: Women and children.
In Lusaka, for every poor man there are 12 poor women, and women head
12% of the urban households. When walking about in the gloomy, thatched
cabin slums of the capital, it is not unusual to find women, often
widows or older siblings, running 10-to-16 children households. How can
jobless women provide for their offspring? The low level of education
for women limits their access to jobs. Hence, they are more likely to
engage in high-risk sex to provide for themselves and their families.
They tend to exchange sex for money and gifts. Being rampant,
prostitution contributes largely to spread the epidemic.
Female condoms could do the job, we think. At least women could protect
themselves without depending on their partners' willingness to use a
contraceptive. The problems is that the female condom cannot be used
surreptitiously; it shows on the outside of the vagina. Women need their
partner's consent to use it. Therefore, they tell men that the female
condom is more pleasurable than the male condom because it is made of
thinner material. "With men, you have to make it look like they are the
ones making the decision," Mwaba says. "But who cares, if in the end
you've attained your goal and you are protected?"
To empower women is not only a feminist issue here. It is crucial to
putting an end to this lethal epidemic, to the whole country's survival.
Justine Monga of Women for Change is convinced that things are already
changing. "We cannot say to people to quit their traditional practices,
but to change something about them, yes. For example, instead of having
sex to cleanse a widow, they can do something else. If you cannot change
the way people think-that would take generations-you can proceed by
piecemeal, by attainable objectives, and make little, but substantial,
One sign of change is that most young and independent women living in
the cities are now choosing to have children without being married and
with no fixed partner whatsoever. As they play the central part in
bringing up their children and the father figure is a weak or absent
one, this seems a wise choice to them.
Women of Zambia must take their sexual lives-in this case literally
their lives-into their hands.
© Patrizia Marani
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