How do we stop society killing women?

Posted on April 26, 2010.

Kudzai Makombe

In sub-Saharan Africa, married women are at high risk of contracting HIV. Photo credit: Petr Kratochvil

In sub-Saharan Africa, married women are at high risk of contracting HIV. Photo credit: Petr Kratochvil

A good friend sent me an interesting academic article last week that got me quite excited. Entitled ‘Shona Womanhood: Rethinking Social Identities in the Face of HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe’, the article really hit home on an issue that we all know is out there for most African women; the cultural definition of a “good woman” as a married woman with children, and the impact this has at a time when the highest HIV infection rates are among married women, for well known reasons related to definitions of masculinity in our cultural contexts.

The author, Pascah Mugwini, writing in The Journal of Pan African Studies (vol.2 no.4, June 2008), points out that Shona women outside marriage are much safer from infection than those within because “there are no constricting cultural norms barring her from negotiating safer sex once she decides to have it”. He also points out that there is more stigma now in having been widowed as a result of HIV than there is in being a single woman.

For a long time we have joked about how it doesn’t matter how many degrees you’ve got or whether you’ve got an amazing career, business, or are doing very well financially as a woman. Ultimately your aunt or whoever will ask, “but when are you getting married”. If you clearly have no prospects and they’ve given up on that one, they will come with “but at least you should have some children”.

The pressures are real and I believe this is one of the reasons we continue to have a high incidence of pregnancies among college students who you would think are using condoms. I’m singling out this particular group because we would expect them to have all the information about protective sex and a level of maturity that enables them to avoid the risk of contracting HIV and the pitfalls of early pregnancy. It is likely that for many of these young women these pregnancies are a way of meeting these social expectations.

Young women in tertiary institutions that I’ve interviewed in the past told me straight that getting a husband while you are still at university or college is key. The idea being to have a husband and one who is similarly educated and with career prospects. To guarantee marriage, some choose to conceive.

I’m impressed with Mugwini for bringing up the topic and at the same puzzled that this critical discussion that we should have started talking about a long time ago has been put on the table by an academic and not the myriad of gender empowerment and HIV and AIDS organisations out there who should be tackling it up-front.

Marriage being the primary site of patriarchy would make it very challenging to address this issue and perhaps this is where gender equality and HIV and AIDS organisations are struggling.

Then there is the simple fact that most women do want to get married, have a stable partnership and start a family. So encouraging women to remain single and childless is certainly not the answer either.

Mugwini says parents are beginning to register concern for their daughters’ health and safety as the value of female children grows in families that have come to realise that daughters are more likely to responsibly care for their parents in old age than sons. If what Mugwini says is true of many parents, could this be an entry point to social change?

Not to dump it squarely at the feet of HIV and AIDS social marketing organisations, but I would love to see a campaign that really tackles this issue; that deals with cultural and religious leaders to help us overcome this concern. A lot of work is being done by male-led gender equality organisations that are tackling issues of masculinities but they need much more support.

If there was ever an area where it has to be emphasised and re-emphasised that gender is about both women and men and we are responsible for each other, this is it. Something of a cultural revolution needs to take place so we can get over this hurdle that is killing women.