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Multiple Concurrent Partnerships: The story of Zimbabwe -
Are small houses a key driver?
June 12, 2007
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Twenty-five years on,
Zimbabwe's HIV and AIDS epidemic is characterised by a prevalence
rate of 18, 1%, 3,000 deaths per week, and more than 800,000 orphans.
A combination of high levels of poverty in the country and the negative
impact of HIV and AIDS are driving people, especially women, to
concentrate on the day- to-day survival of themselves and their
children, even if it means exposing themselves to high risk situations.
While so far, government has responded to the epidemic primarily
by utilising its own resources mobilised through the popular AIDS
Levy, without external support and resources the AIDS Levy is grossly
inadequate in fighting the devastations of the epidemic.
Close to 600,000 people
infected with HIV and AIDS are in need of treatment right now and
yet less than 10% are accessing the life prolonging drugs. Therefore,
prevention and programmes to reduce new infections must remain the
backbone of Zimbabwe's HIV and AIDS response. Awareness of HIV and
AIDS is very high among Zimbabweans, but behaviour change remains
a clear challenge, as observed in the continuing high levels of
A study by Gregson, in
Manicaland in 2005, which helps to explain the decline in prevalence
rate (from 25.5% in 1998-2000 to 18.1% in 2004) attributed this
to a general decline in casual sex among young Zimbabweans and delayed
sexual debut. While this has been applauded as an indication of
positive behaviour change, the emergence of another phenomenon that
seems to have replaced casual sex, commonly called the "small
house", is an area of concern. It seems that men are viewing
small houses as a new and safer way of dealing with HIV and AIDS.
Although this paper is not based on any scientific study or evidence,
it is based on findings from focus group discussions held with men
and women in Harare who are all very familiar with the small house
Small houses are a form
of concurrent relationship in which a person is having regular sexual
relations with another person, while at the same time continuing
to have sex with their current primary sexual partner. In this case
the primary sexual partner is the legal wife or the partner they
live with, even though not legally married. In the simplest terms
a small house is defined by many Zimbabweans as; an informal, long-term,
secret sexual relationship with another woman who is not a man's
legal wife, carried on in a house that is a smaller version of the
man's own home in another residential suburb. In some cases there
are children who do not necessarily use their father's name and
in a few cases lobola has been paid to the other women's family.
For as long as it is practically possible the small house is kept
secret from the legal wife and her children.
From the several studies
and analysis done by prevention experts on this topic it has been
unanimously agreed that such multiple and concurrent relationships
are a key driver of the epidemic. The purpose of this paper is not
to discuss the morality of this practice but to look at whether
it is indeed a key driver of HIV and AIDS. It is important to note
that although this paper is on Zimbabwe, small houses are also found
beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, in other southern African countries
and referred to by different local names.
Factors as indicated by the people interviewed
The high levels of AIDS-related
deaths in Zimbabwe have forced men to acknowledge that AIDS is indeed
a problem that they can no longer afford to ignore and demands that
they find new ways of doing business. The message of abstinence,
faithfulness and condom use (ABC) is well known to all. However,
the desire for multiple sexual partners has convinced men that small
houses could be a safer way of continuing to enjoy sex with multiple
partners, rather than choosing monogamy and faithfulness, which
are widely viewed as western ideals not applicable to Africans.
According to most of
the men in the focus group discussions, they are pushed by their
wives to start small houses. Using their own words, "wives
are nagging, there is no time to rest or have peace in your own
home without the wife asking for money for this and that or complaining
about what has not been done or paid by the husband." "Once
they are married women tend to relax and take so many things for
granted, they stop pampering their husband and are always moody,
complaining or shouting." "Most wives use sex deprivation
as a tool to punish the husband when they are not happy." "Before
small houses we would stay in the beer hall until late, have a bit
of casual sex and get home when I know she will be asleep. But now
with HIV and AIDS casual sex is now a no go area. In contrast the
small house is a house of peace where I can rest mentally and physically
while being treated as a king. My responsibility is to pay the rent
and buy food. When I do buy the woman anything she is very grateful
whereas my wife and children at the big house feel it is their right
and might not see the need to appreciate what I do. Sexually I can
do at the small house that which I do not necessarily do in my house
(oral and anal sex) because my wife sees it as embarrassing and
unacceptable. The small house is really my wife the only difference
is that there is no legal certificate or rings."
When asked whether they
use protection most men expressed the view that a small house is
different from a casual partner. "I do not want to offend the
woman by using condoms because she is just as faithful as my wife
at home". So to keep this faithful and trusting image, the
couple does not use condoms. "In some cases the woman wants
to have children with me."
Most men confirmed and
emphasised the use of condoms in casual sex, which is no longer
encouraged as it is seen as high risk. The problem is that small
houses are not viewed as high risk at all. Men indicated the woman
has no reason to have sexual relations with other men because her
needs are taken care of. Besides they are at the small house quite
frequently with some men spending time there more than in their
marital homes. It is men's low perception of the risk that is the
real danger. Some stated that even though they might have initially
met their partner in a pub, they have found that when they are taken
care of, the women become faithful to them.
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