Maria Sailesi (real name withheld) of Saiti Kazuwa Village, Traditional Authority Mponda in Mangochi, was prepared to trust her man as long as she would have the pride of being a married woman.
“It’s every woman’s wish to have own husband but it is rare in my area. And elderly people advised me that it did not matter to be one of the wives,” said Maria, a fifth wife to a fisherman.
She did not even try to find out the HIV status of the man or the co-wives; the husband also did not bother to find out about her status.
Six years into the marriage, she went on to have three children.
Last year, when she went for antenatal clinic whilst pregnant for the fourth child, she tested positive to HIV.
Experts in field have singled out multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships (MCP) as one of the ways through which HIV is transmitted in Malawi.
A Soul City Institute Regional Programme report on MCP in Southern African says MCPs are key drivers of the spread of HIV in Southern Africa.
The study says few people acknowledge that reducing sexual partners reduces chances of contracting and spreading the virus that causes Aids.
In the study, most women said that they feel it is a disgrace to divorce. Instead, they would rather stay in an MCP situation.
The study also reveals that partners find themselves in MCPs because of sexual, emotional, physical dissatisfaction and the need and desire for money and goods.
According to the report, cultural and social norms create serious power imbalances that fuel MCP.
“Deeply-embedded cultural and social norms perpetuate the social climate that drives MCP. Cultural norms make it ‘normal’ for men to have more than one sexual partner while at the same time condemning women who engage in MCP. This seems to be accepted by both men and women,” the report says.
It adds that other researches indicate that many women stay in relationships with men who are involved in MCP and who abuse them because they are afraid to be alone.
“The fact that MCP are entrenched in social and cultural life challenges simplistic moral messages that do not promote dialogue and critical thinking individuals, communities and policy makers.
“HIV prevention interventions must acknowledge the complexity of these social power dynamics –including culture, tradition, power and status –if they are to succeed,” says the report.
Executive Director for Malawi Interfaith Aids Association (Miaa), Robert Ngaiyaye, says the country is still registering lots of new HIV infections because there is lack of mutual faithfulness in not only MCPs but also all other relationships too.
“Wha t we know from evidence is that most new infections are coming from stable relationships due to lack of mutual faithfulness. We need God’s intervention,” he notes.
Ngaiyaye says from a faith response point of view, those who are single or widowed are encouraged to practice abstinence.
“Those who are married should be faithful. We are still struggling for others within the faith community to understand that a condom should be used especially for sero-discordant couples (where one partner is HIV positive and another one is not),” he explains.
On his part, Executive Director for Malawi Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (Manet +) Safari Mbewe says all married couples are at risk of contracting HIV.
“According to the statistics that I have seen, not only people who are in casual MCPs are at risk of HIV but all married couples are at risk,” he says.
In May, the United States’ President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) said sub- Saharan countries including Malawi have failed to change their high risk sexual behaviour despite several promotion programmes which it partly funded.
A study done by Stanford University School of Medicine research team revealed that nearly US$1.3 billion has been spent on promotion of abstinence and faithfulness programmes by Pepfar.
The Soul City report recommends the need for sexuality education which includes ways to talk about sex with a partner without fear of negative consequences.
It also says gender inequalities that reinforce female subservience and male dominance need to be addressed, adding that cultural norms that support the idea that it is ‘natural’ for men to have MCP and that women should not talk about sex need to be challenged.
Gender Activist, Esther Mughogho, says there is need to empower women with information on their sexuality and harmful cultural practices and that they should be able to negotiate for safe sex in marriage.
“I’m not saying women should stop being submissive but they should be in a position to scrutinise issues and stand up for their rights where they are infringed upon.”
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