In Zambia, women shoulder a disproportionate share of the HIV/AIDS burden. As a journalist and activist, World Pulse member Prudence Phiri seeks to halt the epidemic by upending entrenched power dynamics that place women at risk.
I sat quietly among the elders—the men seated on stools as an emblem of authority, while the women sat demurely on a reed mat. The occasion was to give counsel to my male cousin, who was complaining that his wife was denying him sex.
Why was she denying him sex? My cousin’s wife had learned that her husband had impregnated two other women. Upon news of this infidelity, she demanded protected sex in order to keep herself healthy and free of HIV. This request infuriated her husband. He, in turn, accused her of infidelity.
After listening to both sides, the room was silent. Then, the elders finally spoke the verdict. Alas, it was the woman who was to blame. They blamed her for her husband’s infidelity, saying it was clear that her husband was forced to look for sex elsewhere where there were no "sanctions" like condom use. She was ordered to submit to her husband, while his infidelity was treated with kid gloves.
My heart bled as the poor woman quietly and tearfully left the 'insaka' to head back to her matrimonial home, for I knew she had just been ordered to have sex with her HIV+ husband without protection. The verdict was essentially her death sentence.
This is just one of the cases in which Zambian traditions oppress women. This is especially true when it comes to sex. Men always dictate the terms, and it is a woman’s duty to submit, no matter the consequence. Single women have more authority to negotiate safe sex with their partners, but there is no such luxury for a married woman. As such, marriage has become a fertile ground for HIV/AIDS infections.
Infidelity is common in Zambian culture. It is not unheard of for a husband to have multiple girlfriends, and women are encouraged by elders and peers to turn a blind eye to their husbands’ activities. Marriage counselors go by the adage 'Ubuchende Bwamwaume Tabonaola Nganda,' which means, 'A man’s infidelity does not break a family.' Women are thus encouraged to stay with cheating partners, making them increasingly susceptible to infection.
Some women have taken bold steps to leave their cheating spouses, yet the majority of women are stuck in marriages that put them at great risk. This is because women in my community lack the financial muscle needed to look after themselves. They are dependent on their husbands financially, which leads them to an early grave.
We must not overlook the women who are in relationships with married men, for they are also engaging with these men for financial gain. Single men struggle financially; married men provide. This means that behind one successful married man there is likely a chain of women seeking financial comfort. If any one person in this chain is infected, the rest will be too.
This is the primary reason why women in Zambia are more impacted by HIV than men. Unfortunately, this number is rising.
For women to break free of the HIV/AIDS virus, we need to empower them with information, life skills, and above all economic means. Empowering a woman economically has great benefit not just on the nation’s economy, but also in terms of global health crises like the one Zambia faces today.
How do we achieve this? I firmly believe it starts with the girl child who will eventually grow into a woman who might wholly submit to getting infected because she is not well equipped. If we invest in educating our female children, they will be able to financially provide for themselves. They will be better able to negotiate safe sex with their partners, and they will be able to curb the spread of infection.
As Nelson Mandela, the world’s most celebrated leader, said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." Indeed, empowering girls and women with education, life skills, and information can eventually lead to an AIDS free Zambia—and an AIDS free world.This story was produced in collaboration with the International Reporting Project and World Pulse. In July 2013, World Pulse Managing Editor Corine Milano traveled to Zambia as an IRP Fellow to meet with experts on global health issues; go on site visits to some of this country’s most successful projects; and to work with World Pulse community members to tell their stories about global health in their country.