THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

A space to celebrate sex and related issues: Southern African Young Women's Festival (SAYWF)
Thandi Mpofu,
October 27, 2010

View audio file details

Sisters, sisters from all over Southern AfricaThe Southern African Young Women's Festival ran between 25 and 28 October. Young women were brought together to share experiences, energise each other and celebrate their youth and the potential they have to advocate for social justice in their respective communities. The Festival was a platform to equip young women with the practical skills they need for effective advocacy for women's rights and included many exciting activities including the launching of the 16 Days national campaigns of activism. The Festival was supported by OSISA

Probably the most conspicuous element of the sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS session held on the third-day session of the SAYWF was the energy and enthusiasm of the young-women, aged between 18 and 30 years. The discussions followed a talk-show format, where young women from all over Southern Africa uninhibitedly shared, celebrated and sang their experiences and insight, occasionally punctuating discussions with their pro-sister catchphrase "Sister, sister. . . . Sister!"

The freedom and openness of expression was exactly the result the organisers of the SAYWF wanted to achieve. The author, activist and moderator of this conversation, Luta Shaba pointed out that the spaces where young women can speak freely on issues of sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS have become limited. These spaces either no longer exist or have become sanitised and usurped by other agendas. The space that SAYWF created for self-expression was fully appreciated by the sisters gathered together.

In general the discussions demonstrated that situations and challenges surrounding sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS are more alike than dissimilar for young women in the region.

Wear your womanhood with purposeSocieties still widely disapprove of premarital sex and the subject of sex itself is even considered taboo. Openly discussing sex in public is frowned upon whilst young women who engage in such talk are judged as badly behaved or promiscuous.

In addition, societies expect that young women's knowledge of sex be about using the information to please the man in their life (or more precisely, their husbands). For young women who talk about sex in their work, it is difficult to find the appropriate language or terminology in the vernacular. It is tough to convey their messages without coming across as lewd. The discussion on why young women have sex showed that economic exchange is a common reason, whether as prostitution or simple survival. Anny Modi from the Democratic Republic of Congo explained that young women in the DRC are even willing to have unprotected sex with an HIV positive man, in order to earn more money, knowing full-well the man's status. Listen

The Festival also brought to the fore the fact that young women today are dealing with issues unique to them with regards sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Take for instance their definition of sex. The sisters agreed that the act might be done with half-a-man or could include an infinite number of participants. There was also vigorous debate on the understanding of masculinity and femininity and a strong departure from convention was evident. One young woman even took issue with the Festival's pink and purple branding, which she perceived to be stereotypical and biased!

It was interesting to see how the Festival also became a space for the young women to vent their frustrations and anger on issues around sex. This was directed at all quarters, from men who were said to be selfish during sex, to governments that fail to alleviate poverty, forcing women into risky sexual behaviour in order to make a living. An aspect that also caused great outrage and is prevalent throughout the region is that of men sleeping with children in the belief that this would cure them of HIV. This was seen as a major reason for intergenerational transmissions.

Vibrant or stereotyping?Grace Chirenje of the Zimbabwe Young Women's Network for Peace Building described a specific billboard campaign that had angered activists and women in general. One posed the question "who else is dipping their fingers into your honey pot?" Whilst the other billboard asked with whom else was their mistress sleeping with? Women at the gathering expressed feeling insulted by the advertisements, which completely ignored the role of men in the spread of the HIV virus. Listen

The discussions on HIV/AIDS were especially poignant as statistics show that teenage girls and young women are the largest population infected with the virus. Concerns about the disease were again similar across all participating nations. For example, the issue of older women physically abusing young women frequently arose. Older women believe that young women have extramarital affairs with their husbands and bring HIV/AIDS into their homes. In Mozambique, it's been reported that men prefer to get tested in secret, without their partners. They often travel to neighbouring South Africa to be tested and their HIV status remains a mystery to their partners.

Florence Khaxas from Namibia explained that numerous HIV positive women in her country have been sterilised without their consent during childbirth. The doctors who did this based their actions on the fact that the women had more than three children and would not want any more due to their HIV status. Listen

Commendably, the sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS session of the Festival did not ignore the personal development of the individual participants. The knowledge of self, on every level, from the physical to the spiritual, was highly emphasised. Sisters were given the opportunity to reflect on and discuss such things as what they love and loathe about sex as well as their how and when preferences. There was also a discussion on young women's understanding of sensuality, which came with a lesson in seduction from the Queen of Sheba. The young women were strongly encouraged to identify and claim their own power as women, all of which was related to their sensuality.

Rudo Chigudu of Young Women's Leadership Initiative in Zimbabwe chose to articulate herself through a poem entitled "My Tired Vagina". Listen

Sensuality in the jingle of banglesSociety almost always puts young women, their views and their needs last, even behind those of their younger brothers. In contrast, the SAYWF session on sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS gave this group of vibrant young women top-billing on their platform to shine and express themselves. The discussion emphasised and fostered the need for knowledge of self that comes with self-understanding and acceptance. These are key to young women making better day-to-day decisions and life choices.

Wanki Womba of Zambia said that the gathering was enriching and enlightening and was definitely something that she would like to implement back home. Listen

Visit the fact sheet

Audio File

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.