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Women as vectors of disease: The problem with ill-thought campaigns
December 07, 2009
I have been
listening to, watching and reading the series of adverts by NAC,
DFID, and PSI
and endorsed by the Ministry of Health with concern. I am referring
to the adverts dealing with the issue of small houses. At a meeting
some time last year at which Wellington Mushayi from PSI presented
his findings on the issue of concurrent multiple relationships,
l problematised a number of their findings. I also problematised
the way he presented his data. In particular l found offensive his
use of the word hure in the title of their research
report titled "Small House, Hure, Sugar Daddies,
and Garden Boys: A Qualitative Study of Heterosexual Concurrent
Partnerships Among Men and Women in Zimbabwe, 2007"
then and now is that the acceptability of the use of hure
in this research was not an accident. Nor was it just a case of
the researchers being objective. It reflected the patriarchal world
view of the research team. I remember him justifying the use of
this word on the grounds that it was merely meant to reflect what
was coming out in the findings. But that does not wash. The research
was done mainly in local languages. They translated the responses
and they maintained the word hure even after this translation. What
did they want to communicate?
him recite the responses from their study l was struck by the apparent
conflation of hure to denote women who do not conform to
societal notions of a "decent" woman. An analysis of
the responses by their study respondents shows that women who are
paid for sex, women who had more than one partner, women who could
"do any style "to satisfy men, small houses, divorced
women all seemed to have been classified as mahure. In
the sense that they are the "other"; characterised by
their sexual experience, sexual independence and unmarried. It is
the unspoken implication that runs through their findings. Women
who are unmarried, divorced, and single or in sexual relationships
considered out of the norm are all endowed either with mythical
sexual wiles meant to ensnare men or are all after men's money.
They are mahure; either because of their sexual wiles (honey
in a jar) "Most men who have hures (commercial sex
workers) find it difficult to enjoy a variety of sexual styles with
their wives. But he can do such things with a hure because
she accepts any style that a man might like." (urban male,
under 25 years); or because they purportedly sell sex in exchange
for money and other goods. (Witness the men in the PSI advert bearing
gifts to satisfy the greedy and sexually depraved small house.)
In the research the justification for small houses is that, "I
will then have a small house where I know the welcome is great.
The sexual styles she offers are way ahead of my wife; her appearance
is smarter too. The small house accepts me as I am". The common
thread between the sex worker and the small house is that they are
both able to offer different sexual styles not offered by the wife,
i.e. sexually accomplished. Fast forward to PSI's adverts
and we see a conflation of commercial sex workers and small houses;
it is not just the sexual accomplishments that these women have
in common, both groups are shown as being in it for the money. In
the research, they would be identified as mahure - whores.
In the PSI adverts, they are identified as "small houses".
When researchers accept
and indeed take on the use of such language, without problematising
it, it has serious consequences. When researchers accept such responses
which are clearly based on stereotyped notions of the roles of men
and women in our society, without probing further, then there is
a serious problem. When researchers do not probe (in a purported
qualitative study) the economic and social system that produces
a class of people forced into a situation where they will do anything
in order to survive, then they have missed the mark. Especially
when these researchers are coming from an organisation with the
resources to influence social thinking such as PSI.
l remember making
the observation then that the researchers needed to perhaps view
that study as an initial exploratory study, that there was need
to have more indepth investigation of the issues at hand. Instead,
they captured these stereotypes as research findings and presented
them to the rest of the world (Mexico AIDS Conference). The concern
then was that on the basis of this study which sampled 144 people
(24 focus group discussions with 6 people per group on average),
interventions would be crafted. I have no knowledge of a follow
up research to the research that was presented by Wellington Mushayi.
If there is, l stand corrected. As it stands, the response to the
findings is now being rolled out. The social marketing juggernaut
is in motion. So far it has involved a media blitz of adverts looking
at the role of small houses in the transmission of HIV.
One advert on TV shows
a jar of honey and different hands dipping into it, scooping finger
loads of the sweet substance. "Are you the only one dipping
from your honey jar?" the advert asks. In the print version
the advert goes on to answer: "Maybe not . . . You see the
honey. She sees your money and the other guys' money at the
same time. And when you're not around, she's spending
your money with some other 'fun' guy.
shows a number of men of various ages and backgrounds at the door
of a woman's home. All of them are bearing gifts.
The men are
seen clamouring for the woman's attentions. In all these adverts
that l have seen so far, there is an uncomfortable reference to
women as the problem. Women as the vectors of disease. Women as
the morally corrupt predatory individuals who go after men's
money, giving them diseases in return. Women who tempt men with
their sexual wiles (honey).
African feminists have
long fought to challenge this depiction of women on the continent,
especially black women as highly sexed, morally depraved individuals.
Racist, colonial thinking presented African women in the words of
William Smith, as "hot constitution'd ladies who "are
continually contriving stratagems how to gain a lover". At
the onset of the HIV and AIDS pandemic in on the continent, this
was manifest in the depiction of AIDS as the disease of prostitutes
in Africa. This was challenged in the ensuing decades but lately
with the challenges of fighting HIV this world view has gotten a
new lease of life. Now in addition to prostitutes, we are seeing
a blitz against so called small houses, single women, divorced women
and young women. We are seeing a resurgence of cultural and religious
fundamentalism. We have gone back to the politics of hetero-normative
morality. Abstain from sex or get married. Virginity testing as
a measure to prevent HIV. If you happen to fall outside of this
frame of reference, then you, your body and your sexuality are the
risk factor. Even when everyone acknowledges that abstaining from
sex while unmarried and being faithful to your husband has not worked
for women; it is still being pushed in subtle ways.
with PSI's approach (as depicted in their campaign) and similar
approaches is that it pathologises women's sexuality and women's
bodies. What such approaches neglect to do is interrogate the oppressive
power relations and the economic exclusion that characterise the
lives of women. It does not interrogate the fact that even in marriage
(perhaps especially in marriage) women are at risk of infection.
It ignores the gender inequalities that lead to violence against
women and contributes to their vulnerability. It does not interrogate
the toxic masculinities and entitlement that put men at risk.
notes that behind the façade of well meant and well intentioned
interventions "awaits a more complex analysis of how black
sexualities and black female sexualities in particular are being
reshaped and re-contoured; marked as particular objects of intervention
by . . . forces - many of which serve as the agents of continuity
for the persistence of "relationships" of repression,
exploitation and appropriation . . . " It does not deal with
the violence of economic exclusion that forces young girls at university
into transactional relationships with older men. Instead, it portrays
them as young Jezebels in-training, little Lolitas entrapping hapless
older men. It ignores a context in which the rape of women is a
political tool which is used with apparent impunity.
What a campaign such
as PSIs will do is to stigmatise women whose lifestyles differ from
the promoted cultural and religious hegemonic norm. It will lead
to the further exclusion of people who perhaps already exist on
the social and economic margins and so all these social classes
find themselves being objects of instrumentalist interventions that
in the long run will not fundamentally change their reality but
will instead entrench their exclusion and marginalisation. Worse,
such approaches might legitimise repressive State action and these
women will find themselves the target of State machinery in operations
such as Operation Chipo Chiroorwa and Operation Chinyavada, when
the State mobilises its resources to ensure that women stay in the
kitchen and away from the public sphere. (Operation Chinyavada or
Operation Clean Up, was launched in 1983 and was purportedly meant
to rid the capital, Harare, of its prostitutes. Horrendous human
rights abuses were committed as hundreds of (mainly black) women
found walking alone on the street after 6 pm, were hauled off the
streets wholesale and taken to prisons and detention centres. Every
single or unaccompanied woman in the mind of the State was a prostitute.
Operation Chipo Chiroorwa is a reincarnation of the former.)
Finally, the issue of
women as vectors of disease is not new or indeed unique to Africa.
link makes interesting and informative reading/viewing.
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