ZIMBABWE: Dangerous sex in "small houses"

One-partner relationships are still the safest
Harare, 18 October 2007 (PlusNews) - There's a weekly television soap about the phenomenon, and even a hit rap song, as Zimbabweans begin to own up to "small houses" - long-term illicit sexual relationships - and their impact on HIV transmission.

"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," one man commented frankly.

There is nothing new in extra-marital affairs, but what researchers are beginning to appreciate is how casual sex is increasingly being replaced by semi-formal relationships, in which safer sex is rarely practiced.

Two factors seem to be driving the "small house" phenomenon: Zimbabwe's economic crisis, which has left women financially vulnerable and dependent, and AIDS awareness, which has reduced men's appetite for casual sex.

"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," Lois Chingandu, executive director of the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS), said in a recent discussion paper.

Men interviewed felt secure that their new-found partners were faithful only to them, and that using condoms would therefore be deemed an insult. But the reality, Chingandu found, was that these were high-risk relationships.

"Zimbabweans must openly confront and condemn small houses, as they are a form of high-risk, multiple, concurrent sexual relations. The current silent diplomacy found in most families is silently fuelling HIV and AIDS, and needs to be stopped to save lives and reduce the numbers of new infections," she wrote.

There is no single category of women involved in small-house affairs: they range from young unemployed women to older single mothers and divorcees who may well be looking for companionship and sex. But economic support - rent, food, car payments or school fees - is often a key motivating factor, and sometimes more than one man is required to cover all the bills.

"Sometimes it becomes necessary to have more than one person to meet my needs, so that the responsibilities are shared. Once in a while we use casual sex to generate the extra income," one woman said in a focus group.

Safer sex

The women acknowledged the risk involved in not practicing safer sex, "but emphasised the need to appear trustworthy ... 'If you insist on condoms the men will leave because they will believe that you are seeing other men. The more trustworthy you look, the more you get'."

Anita Sanjala was a 21-year-old housemaid when her employer made her pregnant; now aged 28, she is still his concubine. "He comes over now and then to see how we are faring," Anita said of her lover, who rents a two-roomed cottage in the upmarket Windsor Park suburb in the city of Gweru, Midlands Province, for her and her son.

Although she does not deny he may well be seeing other women, she seemed unfazed by it. "So long as he provides me and my son support while I enjoy the freedom of living apart from him and his wife, I am not bothered much," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

Posting on HDN eForums

"I am glad someone has decided to write about these small-houses women, who to me are women who don't have any self-respect, for why would any God-fearing, HIV-fearing and intelligent woman be irresponsible in this day of HIV and AIDS? Yes, the men in these relationships are equally lacking in self-respect, but for me it is the woman who allows herself to be used that is the worst of the two.

If they all refuse to be at a married man's beck and call, we will be fine. Yes, a married man only sees a small house when time permits, when there are no commitments at home, and when he feels like indulging himself away from reality; reality of bills, of school fees, of helping his own children with homework and other stuff like that.

If these women would go out and get their own men instead of taking another woman's scrapings, then we would not have these alarming HIV statistics we are having."

Zimbabwe has managed to cut its HIV infection rate over the last few years to 18 percent; small houses - and more particularly the lack of condom use and gender inequality the relationships represent - threaten those gains, with married women at particular risk.

"Married women continue to face the high risk of HIV/AIDS infection, because it is difficult for them to persuade their partners to use condoms when they suspect them of having extramarital affairs or relationships," said Caroline Nyamayemombe, of the United Nations Population Fund Agency (UNFPA).

Most women "will claim not to know", even if they suspect their husbands are cheating, said Chingandu. "Very few families will encourage the woman to take responsibility for her own life and divorce. The fear of the taboo that goes along with women taking the lead in getting a divorce supersedes even their fear of dying from AIDS."

One posting on an electronic forum in response to her paper was scathing: "As a married woman myself, who is faithful to her husband and who prays that the husband is also faithful, I just think small houses need to be sued because of the risk they are putting not only [on] themselves, but us, the main houses, and the children we are getting out of all these unions," the writer commented.

Chingandu said, "Gender programmes need to do more in empowering all women to demand their right to safer sex, and to deal with the consequences that might arise. Communities must be encouraged to support their ... [members] who want to divorce or leave these high-risk relationships."


Theme (s): Gender - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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