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Entitlement, gender inequality and HIV/AIDS

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The account 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”.

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 that:

“Yes, 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.

Isn’t 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”. Read more

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