Rural black women’s agency within intimate partnerships amid the South African HIV epidemic

  • Britta Thege


In a particular way, the HIV pandemic exposes the prevailing gender relations and the definitions of male and female gender roles, both in intimate relationships and in the wider society. The HIV pandemic reveals the contradictions between women’s legal rights and the persistence of women’s cultural and sexual subordination. It reflects the impact of poverty, gender roles, culture and religion. Although HIV and AIDS cuts across class, South African rural black women’s infection risk seems particularly high since they suffer notably from subordination and socio-economic hardships. Negotiating safer sex in marriage or intimate partnerships is very difficult for them in view of the traditional spaces in which they find themselves, where patriarchal structures are pervasive. Based on data obtained from a case study, this paper examines socio-cultural constraints to rural women’s sexual agency in a patriarchal social order. These rules are based on a patriarchal code of respect, which is still pervasive in many aspects of the community under investigation. In terms of gender relations, the  patriarchal code of respect is founded on an assumed ‘naturalisation’ of the two genders and the natural superiority of the male over the female. In terms of sexuality it is translated into male sex-right. The fear of HIV infection is omnipresent and results in unmarried women engaging in the negotiation of their wants and needs. Owing to the patriarchal code of respect, married women are perceived as having no choice in negotiating safer sex and are forced to put their lives at risk in contracting HIV. Unmarried women have greater although not endless choices in this regard. Although the study participants unexpectedly displayed a rather negative perception of other women, in order to strengthen women in their proximal environment the HIV epidemic may be seen as a vehicle for building solidarity among women in the community.

Keywords: cultural factors; empowerment; gender issues; male sex-right; patriarchy; risk perceptions; sexuality; social conditions; socio-cultural aspects

African Journal of AIDS Research 2009, 8(4): 455–464

Author Biography

Britta Thege
Department of Sociology, University of Pretoria, Lynnwood Road, Pretoria 0002, South Africa; University of Applied Sciences Kiel, Institute for Interdisciplinary Gender Research and Diversity, Sokratesplatz 2, 24149 Kiel, Germany

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445