Fertility, Masculinity and Economics: The Complicated Sexual Politics of Zambian Youth

Masimba Biriwasha

Both young men and young women in Zambia are under pressure to engage in multiple sexual relationships. For men, it's due to norms of masculinity, and for women, it's due to economic hardship.

Young men and women in Zambia are under
pressure to engage in multiple sexual relationships due, respectively, to prevailing
societal attitudes about masculinity and for economic benefits, said a study recently published in the African Journal of AIDS

The study states that young men are
likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior because that is the way
men are expected to behave, with the majority believing that their identity
is defined by their sexual prowess.

On the other hand, young women have
multiple sexual partners as a way to escape poverty.

"Among young women in the study,
the practice of multiple sexual partnerships seemed fairly widespread
and it typically involved powerful socio-economic ties, making it difficult
for individuals to change their own behavior," states the study.

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According to UNAIDS, an estimated 16.5
percent (1,200,000) of people aged 15-49 in Zambia are living with HIV,
of which 57 percent are women with the main mode of HIV transmission
being heterosexual intercourse.

To make matter worse, UNAIDS reports
that in Zambia there is also pressure on women to demonstrate their
fertility, so they do not use condoms and a cultural trend for inter-generational
relationships also puts girls at risk: statistics show that HIV prevalence
peaks in men between the ages of 29 and 34; in women it is 15 – 24.
Among young people ages 15-24, the estimated number of young women living
with HIV in Zambia is more than twice that of young men.

In Zambia, like many countries in sub-Saharan
Africa, epidemiological evidence shows that multiple sexual partnerships
are contributing considerably to HIV transmission.

In light of this, there is need for
increased emphasis on fidelity and partner reduction in the prevention
of HIV transmission. However, a combination of cultural and economic
factors push young people into potentially risky sexual engagement with
multiple partners.

According to the study, although young
people were aware of the risk associated with having multiple sexual
partnerships, they described several barriers to translating knowledge about safer sex
into health-promoting safer-sex behaviours.

"For many young men, having many
partners was a way of demonstrating their virility and manliness,"
states the study. "It was seen as more acceptable for men than women
to have multiple sexual partners."

The study adds that a traditional culture
that associates masculinity with having multiple sexual partners does
exist among youth in Zambia.

"When respondents spoke about young
men having multiple sexual partnerships in order to ‘prove a point,’ it is evident that in essence the point they were trying to ‘prove’ was that they could live up to the cultural expectations of masculinity
in Zambia," says the report.

Notions of masculinity have long been
singled out as a stumbling block to safe sexual practices between men
and women.

The study recommends challenging the traditional notions of masculinity that put both
men and women at risk of exposure to HIV.

Respondents also cited polygamy, which
is widely practiced in some parts of Zambia, as a factor which drives
multiple sexual relationships for young people socialized in a polygamous

Effective responses to HIV and AIDS
in Zambia, like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, need to continuously
figure out how to tackle often-sensitive cultural issues that facilitate
HIV transmission.

Among young men, existent concepts
of masculinity need to be redefined so that the definition of manhood
is not simply confined to sexual prowess or number or sexual encounters.

The study further recommends that young
women need to be offered more opportunities to escape poverty because
this will reduce the need to resort to multiple partners as a means
of survival.

"While the majority of the young
people were well aware that having multiple sexual partnerships increased
their chance of contracting HIV, it is vital that youth be made aware
of the sexual networks that are created as a result of this multiple
partnering – and how the chance of becoming infected can depend on
one’s position within the networks," states the study.

Overall, sex education can play a key
role in encouraging young people to either delay having sex or practice
safer sex.

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