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Entitlement and responsibility: Gender inequality and HIV/AIDS
October 28, 2008
by Beatrice Tonhodzayi of the experiences of an HIV positive
man raises a lot of issues which l feel should be discussed more
than is done in the diary. I will start by saying upfront that in
this critique l am taking a woman centred approach to the issues
raised. In particular, I have always been concerned that in a lot
of the discourse around infection within a marital relationship,
there seems to be an inordinate amount of emphasis on people not
seeking to blame their sexual partners, rather being exhorted to
"just accept the result and move on".
me in the account is that Tamuka does not appear to have fully taken
responsibility for his actions in his relationship with his wife.
It is always difficult for outsiders to say with any certainty who
is responsible when HIV infection becomes an issue in a relationship.
That is an issue for the two or three or five people involved in
the relationship to say. That is not the focus of my discussion.
However in so far as Tamuka seems to have admitted to being the
one responsible for infecting his wife, l will take that as the
I am worried
that Tamuka does seem to have grasped the full significance of his
actions and certainly does not seem prepared to take full responsibility
for his actions while he was married. He seems puzzled that his
wife will not talk to him as she believes he is responsible for
infecting her with HIV. One does not get the sense that he understands
what the HIV positive diagnosis means for her. There is no indication
that he has any empathy for his wife. He has not put himself in
her shoes and sought to understand from her perspective what it
must feel like dealing with this diagnosis. I am sure a lot of women
who are similarly infected share the same bewilderment, anger and
despair as Tamuka-s wife. This is because for a long time
the message was and to an extent still is, abstinence or chastity
until marriage and then faithfulness to your one husband. So assuming
you have honoured this blue print for avoiding infection, it has
to come as a shock when you discover that despite having followed
this advice as given by your mother, your aunt, your teacher, your
church, your community health worker and even that NGO that is so
respected, you still find yourself infected. The icing on the cake
is that if this happens to you, you should just accept this diagnosis
and move on, because that is the nature of the marital bed.
For me the worst
but most important point in Tamuka-s account is his statement
l may have cheated a few times in this marriage but nothing out
of the ordinary. I am definitely not the "Mr. Harare"
that my wife, her friends and family are now portraying me to
be. I am just a regular, ordinary man who strayed from the marital
bed a few times."
This is where
the crux of the matter is, is it not? His statement exposes the
sense of entitlement that a lot of men have when it comes to cheating
on their spouses and other intimate partners. Tamuka believes his
infidelity is acceptable as it is "nothing out of the ordinary".
After all he did it just a "few times". So to take his
argument to its logical conclusion, it is okay to cheat "just
a few times"? Is that what the "ordinary man"
out there believes? That they are entitled to cheat because that
is what "ordinary men" do? This begs the question, just
how many times do you have to be unfaithful before you run the risk
of getting infected with either an STI or HIV? Does one get a merit
award if they cheat a few times as opposed to a lot of times? Is
there a measure for cheating, where some acts of infidelity are
more acceptable than others? It is interesting that the interviewer
never challenged Tamuka-s statement above.
this part of the problem sub-Saharan Africa has with HIV infection,
when you have an intersection between gender inequality and the
HI Virus? The problem is we have a society that views male infidelity
as a normal expression of masculinity. This finds expression in
some writers regurgitating without critiquing opinions that men
allegedly express that they set up "small houses" because
they will be dissatisfied with their wives at home. I will argue
that a lot of men who cheat, do so because they can. They do it
because like Tamuka, they believe that they are just being "men".
It is an expression of the patriarchal power that they have. Unfortunately
in an age of HIV and AIDS, these masculinities are toxic masculinities.
That single sexual encounter can result in HIV infection. You can
get infected whether or not you are a "Mr Harare".
the spectre of HIV infection, infidelity in a relationship is a
problem. It destroys the trust which is the basis of the relationship.
With some relationships, it destroys the love that was there between
the parties and leads to divorce. In most relationships, it results
in the other party struggling with feelings of inadequacy and low
self-esteem. Anger, even hatred/dislike is common. Most couples
need counselling and support to help them come to terms with the
infidelity. I would imagine that this would be especially true in
situations where HIV is an issue. Not only does the wronged party
have to contend with the infidelity, they also have to contend with
the fact that their partner/spouse-s infidelity has resulted
in them getting infected with HIV. I can only imagine that the feelings
of anger, hatred and betrayal would only be amplified in such cases.
The other problem
with Tamuka-s account is that there is an unspoken expectation
that his wife should just accept not just Tamuka-s infidelity,
but also the infection and get over it. Tamuka sounds puzzled that
his wife has not readily accepted his status and is not supporting
him. He is concerned that they "don-t laugh together
and (we) rarely talk to each other". He is surprised that
she is making an issue of the "few times" that he strayed
from the marital bed. The author of the piece weighs in with a reminder
that "staying angry at your partner does not change your HIV
status". That is well and good for Tamuka, but those who do
counselling also know that anger is one stage that a person has
to go through on the way to coming to terms with their diagnosis
or grief. If Tamuka-s wife is angry, is she not entitled to
be given what she has been through? Why should she be denied this
important step in her healing process simply because Tamuka finds
it uncomfortable? I am sure if someone were to ask Tamuka-s
wife why she doesn-t laugh anymore, one might get a response
that there is nothing funny about the situation the couple finds
themselves in. What support has been availed to her to help her
come to terms not just with his infidelity but also her positive
status? His expression of remorse does not sound sincere. It certainly
sounds like he knows that he should be remorseful but he really
is not. If he were, he would accept full responsibility for his
actions and not seek to make excuses that he was just being a man.
There is no indication that he appreciates what he has to do in
order to make amends.
I am concerned
that when a statement such as that made by Tamuka goes unchallenged,
we perpetuate those practices in our society that make both men
and women vulnerable to infection. By emphasising the need for the
woman in this case to forgive and forget, without validating her
feelings of anger and betrayal, are we not being complicit in the
continued subjugation of women and their continued infection in
the marital bed? By not demanding that Tamuka takes full responsibility
for his actions without seeking to explain them away or minimise
them, are we not tacitly perpetuating the notion that it is normal
and therefore acceptable for men to cheat on their spouses? I really
would love to hear Tamuka-s wife-s story. I am sure
it would educate a lot of us.
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