Women still battle for safe sex

“I was afraid to insist on using protection with my boyfriend because he did a lot for me – even though I knew my life was more important than financial security,” said Miriam Mutasa (23).

A student at the University of Zimbabwe, she has seen a number of relatives and schoolmates infected with HIV/AIDS and knows all about the disease.

Mutasa thought hers was a smart life as she flatly refused any sexual encounters with her previous boyfriends. But due to economic dependency she ended up sharing a bed with her latest boyfriend, who is almost twice her age and a married man. He gave her a lot of money but demanded unprotected sex.

Mutasa eventually contracted a sexually transmitted infection. She headed straight to the hospital where she received counseling and was advised never to indulge in unprotected sex. She was also taught how to demand, insist and negotiate for safe sex.

Her story is typical of the experiences women face when negotiating safe sex.

Muchaneta Sithole (30), a mother of four, including an infant born HIV positive, tested positive in1999. She had lived with her husband for 12 years and had never had a relationship with another man. Her husband never showed any signs of infidelity and she trusted him completely.

Although women are now able to join professions like medicine, law, building and all other forms of vice, they are still unable to decide in bed.

Rights campaigners say poverty, gender-based violence, economic factors, lack of empowerment, inequalities, as well as socio-cultural practices compromise women’s ability to negotiate safe sex.

Virginia Muwanigwa, a gender rights advocate and Director of the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre said women are disadvantaged culturally because Zimbabwean society uses different barometers for women and men in terms of sex and sexuality. “As long as women in relationships are subservient to men, they are unequal partners in any negotiation,” she said.

“Promoting safe sex should not just be centered on building the negotiating power of women. Messages must be focused also on how safe sex decisions are beneficial for both partners,” added Muwanigwa.

Research has shown that even in cases where women are economically independent, negotiating safe sex remains a challenge. “Empowerment comes with increased control over economic resources in some cases – but this has not been enough to tilt the power scales in favour of women,” she said.

Jonah Gokova, Chairperson of Padare-Enkundleni, said his organisation trains members to respect women’s rights and practice safe sex.

“We encourage men to engage in safe sex, highlighting that safe sex is not forced sex and requires respect of women by men. If a woman says no, she means no,” said Gokova.

In negotiating safe sex, condom promoters in Zimbabwe encourage married women to view the female condom not as an HIV-prevention tool, but as a means to avert unintended pregnancies. This enables a woman to avoid accusing her husband of having other partners and putting her at risk.

Post published in: Analysis

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