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Women as vectors of disease: The problem with ill-thought campaigns
Catherine Makoni
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"

My contention 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?

Listening to 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.

Another advert 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.

The problem 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.

Pat McFadden 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. This link makes interesting and informative reading/viewing.

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