Empowering Women to Rescue Zambia from AIDS

Patrizia Marani

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 self-esteem.

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 AIDS.

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 breast-feeding another.

"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, changes."

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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