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Multiple Concurrent Partnerships: The story of Zimbabwe - Are small houses a key driver?
Lois Chingandu, SAfAIDS
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 new infections.

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 practice.

Small Houses defined

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.

Causal 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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