Health-e (Cape Town)

20 June 2011

South Africa: Safe Sex Elusive for Many Women

Most women still find it difficult to negotiate safe sex with their partners. The problem is even more prevalent among women who are economically dependent on men. Some institutionalised social and cultural norms also fuel the challenge.

Ruth Mokoena, a 30 year-old married woman from Johannesburg, believes that age difference plays a major role in whether a woman is able to negotiate safe sex in the relationship.

"Women do find themselves in a situation whereby negotiating safe sex in the bedroom becomes a burden and they end up giving in. You get some ladies where there is an age difference between the two people and I found that the younger woman (most of the time it's a younger woman) has a lot of difficult time convincing the guy to use a condom", she says.

Ruth reckons that she probably would have had a similar problem had her partner been older.

"I found that with me and my husband we're the same age and we think along the same lines. It tends to be much easier", says Mokoena.

Moses Mabala, a 31-year old male from Johannesburg, also shared his thoughts on the subject.

"Sometimes men will force their way through to have unprotected sex. A woman will be given no opportunity to stand up for herself, which is a wrong thing to do", he says.

Zuzimpilo Clinic's Dr. Limakatso Lebina said ascribed this to a lack of safer sex methods that put power into women's hands. She says this and other factors, such as the economic and cultural status of women contributes to women's struggles to negotiate safe sex with their male partners.

"It is definitely difficult for ladies to negotiate safe sex. Unfortunately, the current safer sex methods that are there highly depend on the man to say 'yes'. And with the relationships always being that the woman will be inferior for whatever reason, whether economical or cultural, then it becomes very difficult, especially in the dim light for a lady to say 'where is the condom?' ", says Dr. Lebina.

Dr. Catherine Ongunmefun from the Health Systems Trust also weighed in on the subject.

"There is the issue of cultural practises that are also not helping women. When it comes to lobola payments... As a woman, a man pays lobola for you and that means you have to submit to that man. It's not going to be easy for you to say: 'maybe, we need to use a condom'. And also, we know that in South Africa we have a very high rate of gender violence, which means women are being abused by their partners. You can imagine if you have been just beaten as a woman there is no way you are going to say: 'Can we use a condom'?", Dr. Ongunmefun says.

Dr. Ongunmefun went on to say that women need to learn to empower themselves.

"Somehow, I think women give in easily. Maybe because they don't have a choice. But if you are economically empowered as a woman and you have a good job, you can negotiate with your partner. You have to find a way not to depend on a man in a relationship.

As a woman you need to empower yourself, respect yourself and say: 'If you are not going to use a condom, then I won't have sex with you'," she says.

According to Mbuyiselo Botha of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, often, men view sex as an act of power. With that comes the need to be in control. As a result, the manner in which sex occurs, including whether precautions are taken or not, largely depends on them.

"A lot of men in our workshops would say 'condoms don't make me feel like a real man'. As you go on to ask: What does that mean? It's that 'I may not have sexual satisfaction, I need to know that I am in-charge, in control and she must in fact feel me and hear me'," says Botha

Botha went on to say that men have a notion of invincibility. They tend to believe that HIV and any other sexually transmitted diseases only affect women.

"There is the thinking that HIV it's not6 a problem for us men. It's in fact women because there is also a notion that women are loose, they have loose morals, they need to be controlled and they need to be contained", he says.

Dr. Ongunmefun says there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to change the mind-set of men.

"I think men are generally ignorant, they pretend to know but they don't really know! They are aware that there is HIV out there, but they never internalise the fact that they have to do something about it themselves. We see millions of people dying out there, but what are you doing as a man? You are contributing to the problem as men by not going to test, you need to know your status", she says.

Moses Mabala says there is still hope that men can change. He says there needs to be a new culture of fathering young boys to make them become better men of the future.

" Fathers can contribute to the whole society in raising their boys or their sons in a manner that does not only mean sex is everything... but also learning how to respect a women and learning how to be a man because at the end of the day it is us men that force actions on women", concludes Mabala.

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