Gender, sex, power and inequalities : an investigation of African femininities in the context of HIV and AIDS.
Shabane, Prim-Rose Makhosazane.
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Gender is inherent in all patriarchal cultures given that women and girls in these societies are relegated to a significantly lower status than men and boys. Many researchers acknowledge the importance of addressing gender inequality in order to adequately understand and address HIV and AIDS transmission and prevention. However, there remains in this area a more direct focus on the specific cultural attitudes and practices that expose women and girls to HIV infections. Professionals in the educational field need to specifically address gender norms and roles and their influence on young people’s sexual behaviour, particularly, with regards to risky behaviour that often has consequences for women and young girls. Sexuality is part and parcel of young girls’ experiences through adulthood which is manifested in personal friendships, relations and social interaction. These encounters constitute sites within which sexual identities are developed, practiced and actively produced through processes of negotiation. As a result of societal influences, these encounters vary immensely between boys and girls because gender inequality has a significant impact on choices available to women and girls, which are often constrained by coercion and violence. Drawing on qualitative research conducted in a high school in KwaMashu, North of Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal, the study investigated ways in which young girls (16-17) give meaning to sexuality, sexual risks and how gender is embedded within these meanings. The study answered three critical questions: What do young girls regard as risky sexual behaviour? Why do young girls engage in risky sexual activities? How is gender connected to sexual risk? Data came from participants’ focus group discussions and indepth interviews with 12 young girls. The study revealed that through social and cultural practices some young girls construct complex gendered relations of domination and subordination that position boys and girls differently, often creating gender inequalities and sexual vulnerability for those gendered as girls. Young girls’ vulnerability is characterised by confusing experiences coupled with silences from their parents’ side about sexuality. The distinctive experiences are complex tensions and contradictions surrounding constructions of sexuality that are predicated upon unequal power and gender relations characterised by coercion, ukuthwala and the control of young girls’ sexuality and gendered experiences that put young girls at risk of contracting HIV and AIDS. The study recommends that parents must communicate with young people (boys and girls) about sexuality. There should be policies that are put in place by all the education stakeholders to address issues of sexuality and gender imbalances within schools. This will help young people to develop the skills needed to adequately negotiate safe sex, avoid risky behaviour and coercive situations, help young people to maintain healthy relationships and address vulnerabilities and promote gender equality and equity in our society.