Gender and vulnerability
Stereotypical gender roles place young women, and to a lesser extent young men, at heightened risk of HIV infection. Young women in many parts of the developing world have little control over how, when and where sex takes place (Gupta, Weiss & Mane, 1996). In perhaps the majority of countries, there are strong pressures on young unmarried women to retain their virginity (Weiss, Whelan & Gupta, 1996; Petchesky & Judd, 1998). However, the social pressure to remain a virgin can contribute in a number of ways to the risks of STIs and HIV which young women face. In some contexts, young women may engage in risky sexual practices, such as anal sex, as means of protecting their virginity (Gupta, Weiss and Mane, 1996).
The high social value placed on virginity in unmarried girls may pressure parents and the community to ensure that young women are kept ignorant about sexual matters. Female ignorance of sexual matters is often viewed as a sign of purity and innocence, while having 'too much' knowledge about sex is a sign of 'easy virtue' (Gupta, Weiss and Mane, 1996). Young women in cultures as diverse as Thailand and Guatemala report that being knowledgeable about sex would compromise others views of them (Weiss, Whelan & Gupta, 1996).
This emphasis on 'innocence' prevents young women from seeking information about sex or services relating to their sexual health. Sexually active young women are also discouraged from discussing sex too openly with their own partners, since women are encouraged to be ignorant and inexperienced. This means that young women are unlikely to be able to communicate their need for safer sex with partners. In Kenya, for example, a recent study revealed that young women felt that they did not have control over their sexuality - instead girls learned that sex was something that happened to them. It was not something they could initiate or actively participate in (Balmer et al, 1997).
In addition to the emphasis widely placed on remaining 'chaste', girls are commonly socialised to be submissive to men (Zeiaya et al, 1997). Girls are often pressured by boys to have sex as a proof of love and obedience. Not surprisingly under conflicting pressures, girls have little influence over decision-making or the use of contraception (Zeiaya et al, 1997). In a recent review of research conducted in seven countries, including Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico and the Philippines, Petchesky and Judd (1998) concluded that even where sexually active young women are aware of HIV/AIDS and measures to protect against infection, rarely do they have the power to ensure that condoms are used.
While dominant ideologies of femininity promote ignorance, innocence and virginity, dominant versions of masculinity encourage young men to seek sexual experience with a variety of partners. In some cultures, boys are actively encouraged by both their peers and family members to use their adolescent years to experiment sexually (Weiss, Whelan & Gupta, 1996).
In Nicaragua, for example, where virginity is highly valued among young women, having multiple sexual partners is taken as a sign of virility in young men (Zeiaya et al, 1997). Here, teenage boys face social pressures from older men (including fathers, older brothers and uncles) to have sex as early as possible and, in the recent past, it was not uncommon for fathers to arrange for their son's sexual initiation with a sex worker (Zeiaya et al, 1997). So while for girls, public disclosure of sexual activity leads to dishonour, bragging about sex is common for boys. Berglund et al (1997) note that for young Nicaraguan men the pressure to be sexually active and multi-partnered may be so great that those who do not fulfil this expectation are open to ridicule by their peers for not being a real man.
Similar patterns prevail elsewhere in the world. In South Africa, for example, having many sexual partners is reported as being equated with popularity and importance among young men (Abdool Karim and Morar, 1995). Interviews with high school students in Zimbabwe indicate that while boys can have (and indeed should have) many girlfriends, girls should stick to one (Bassett & Mhloyi, 1991). Although not all young men conform to the dominant versions of masculinity described above, those who fail to do so are often ridiculed and subjected to peer pressures to conform. Homophobic bullying of the form which implies that any man who fails to conform to the dominant gender stereotype must be 'homosexual',1 is but one of the many tactics employed in this process. Not only does such behaviour stigmatise sexual minorities, it serves to police the boundaries of a heterosexual masculinity in which multiple partnerships with women becomes the norm.
1 It should be emphasised that the term 'homosexual' is rarely the term used. Instead, phrases and descriptions within the local language and vernacular are employed. Sometimes these connote supposed passivity in sexual relations (with other men), sometimes they simply suggest that the individual concerned is not entirely 'heterosexual'.
While gender norms dictate that girls and women should remain poorly informed about sex and reproduction, young men are expected to be more knowledgeable, often as an indication of their sexual experience. However, research in a variety of contexts shows that they may be often poorly informed, but because sexual ignorance is not socially acceptable young men are reluctant to admit that they are lacking in knowledge (Weiss, Whelan & Gupta, 1996). So while young women risk their sexual health because they must appear to be ignorant and so cannot openly seek information, young men risk their sexual health because they must appear to be knowledgeable and so cannot openly seek information either.
Importantly, the epidemic of HIV/AIDS has served to further entrench some gender inequalities and has placed young women at increased risk of HIV infection. Central among these is the tendency for some older men to seek partners who are less likely to be sexually experienced or, in their eyes, infected by HIV (Petchesky & Judd, 1998). This places young women at increased risk of becoming infected by older men who may have wide sexual experience (Panos, 1996). It is important to recognise that many young women who have HIV infection have had only one sexual partner, namely their husband (UNDP, 1993). Furthermore, families affected by HIV/AIDS may seek economic security by marrying their daughters prematurely to older men. Not only may this have serious implications for the sexual and reproductive health of the young women concerned, it may cut short their education and hold back social development.
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