Love matters: exploring conceptions of love in Rwanda and Swaziland and relationship to HIV and intimate partner violence

  • Allison Ruark
  • Erin Stern
  • Thandeka Dlamini-Simelane
  • Marie Fidele Kakuze
Keywords: cultural change, intimacy, gift-sex exchange, globalisation, marriage, relationship quality


Health risks such as intimate partner violence (IPV) and HIV infection often occur within intimate sexual relationships, yet the study of love and intimacy is largely absent from health research on African populations. This study explores how women and men in Rwanda and Swaziland understand and represent love in their intimate sexual partnerships. In Rwanda, 58 in-depth interviews with 15 couples, 12 interviews with activists, and 24 focus group discussions were carried out during formative and evaluative research of the Indashyikirwa programme, which aims to reduce IPV and support healthy couple relationships. In Swaziland, 117 in-depth, life-course interviews with 14 women and 14 men focused on understanding intimate sexual partnerships. We analysed these qualitative data thematically using a Grounded Theory approach. Participants described love as being foundational to their intimate sexual partnerships. Women and men emphasised that love is seen and expressed through actions and tangible evidence such as gifts and material support, acts of service, showing intentions for marriage, sexual faithfulness, and spending time together. Some participants expressed ambivalent narratives regarding love, gifts, and money, acknowledging that they desired partners who demonstrated love through material support while implying that true love should be untainted by desires for wealth. IPV characterised many relationships and was perceived as a threat to love, even as love was seen as a potential antidote to IPV. Careful scholarship of love is critical to better understand protective and risk factors for HIV and IPV and for interventions that seek to ameliorate these risks.

Keywords: cultural change, intimacy, gift-sex exchange, globalisation, marriage, relationship quality

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445