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Gender dimensions

Gender issues are raised in relation to many of the themes covered by the interviews. Additionally, several narrators refer to expectations associated with being male or female. These range from the games they were expected to play at school to the requirements of the lobola (dowry) system linked to marriage.

The key gender issue described by both men and women is their difficulty in expressing themselves in mixed-sex support groups. Many talk of their embarrassment and how it restricts conversation. The fact that Khululeka is a men-only support group is regarded as a vital part of involving more men in HIV prevention activities. One woman speaks of discrimination she experienced in TAC, and comments that while the majority of members are women, most of its leaders are men.

Several of the women make reference to their economic dependence on men, and entering into sexual relationships for material support. The problem of violence against women is mentioned by both men and women; some discuss the need to raise women’s awareness of their rights in relationships.

The relative reluctance of men to be open about their status and to seek help is also raised by a number of narrators. One narrator feels that if more women spoke out on the radio about their experience of stigma and violence, men’s behaviour towards them might begin to change.

The attraction of a men-only group

I am involved in a social movement, it’s the men-only support group called Khululeka. We socialize and learn about how we live with the disease called HIV….

I have been into a group before. The difference between the previous social movement and the one I’m with now is that the previous one was male and female together and we tried out our differences, our problems and so forth.

But Khululeka is a support group of its own, you know. The uniqueness about Khululeka for me personally is that it’s male only. It’s where you can speak freely about anything under the sun pertaining to men; where you don’t have to look over your shoulder wondering if there would be any women around.

John, (male), member of Khululeka, South Africa

Women together are more open

When there are just women, we discuss everything openly, but when there’s a man there, there are certain things which can not be mentioned. We discuss all the problems that we face at home, and this life of poverty – what are we going to do? Sometimes we ask questions. For example: I am on medication and the time that I am supposed to take my drugs is 8 o’clock, but then I [forget to] take them [until] 5 past 8 – should I take them or should I leave them?

We help each other like that, because sometimes there’s someone who knows about the medication, and sometimes we have big issues going on. Sometimes you have a spot develop down there… and when there’s a man you won’t really talk about it because you feel uncomfortable, so you just shut up. But when there are only women, you can say all you want to say.

Karolina (female), member of ICW, Namibia

‘My only choice was to accept him’

[My partner and I], we had been together for 15 years. He passed away on the 2nd July 2006. When he [went north to marry] he went behind my back. I only came to hear about it when he came back. After he got married, I felt that it doesn’t really matter – I can’t go on chasing after other men – so I decided to stay with him.

It really hurt me a lot, but I had no other option. If I said that I am going to dump him, it would be difficult for me to cope. I had no job, my only choice was to accept him, but in my heart I was having difficulty accepting the situation. I went and talked to one of my family and he said that it doesn’t really matter, you are grown up, just leave it, continue with your relationship.

I don’t really know why we didn’t marry, but maybe…. I heard people said you can’t marry that person, she is old and she already has children of her own – like in the olden days, people didn’t like to marry someone who already has a lot of children. So maybe his family was not happy with the idea of us getting married, and he decided to get someone younger.

Karolina (female), member of ICW, Namibia

‘Growing up, I was mostly like a boy’

Growing up, I was mostly like a boy, doing stuff that boys do, like playing soccer, climbing trees and so on. That was my favourite time.

Female, member of TAC, South Africa

‘I was desperate… I had to pay lobola’

For my very first job…I worked at [a] hospital…. Actually I was desperate…because I had to pay lobola for my girlfriend I made pregnant. As she was my second girlfriend to become pregnant, my father told me to go and seek work because it seemed as if I was starting my own family.

Male, member of Khululeka, South Africa

‘If I didn’t have a boyfriend I didn’t have money’

I had a lot of boyfriends because if I didn’t have a boyfriend I didn’t have money, and I was suffering financially. I met a boyfriend in church and he wanted a baby so I decided why not?

Female, member of TAC, South Africa

Men are shy

When Phumzile came up with this idea of forming a support group he was working in Lusikisiki with Professor Stevens. He started with eight men in Guguletu. The reason why he started it with men is because he could men dying of HIV/AIDS in large numbers and saw that men were scarce in support groups; the majority was women.

Men are very shy. I would like to see Khululeka working as a hospice, helping those men who cannot care for themselves, washing them, cutting their hair and nails, and feeding them.

Cecile (female), member of Khululeka, South Africa

Hopes for the future

I would like more men to come out of the closet, because … the men in our community are too scared to talk about their HIV status. I only know of, say, three in our community that are open about their status and we need more men, we really need more men [to do this].

(male), member of Khululeka, South Africa

Surviving an abusive marriage

I had to get married; I had a child with my first husband. But this marriage was very very physically and emotionally abusive. My husband was in the army and he was older than me. He was very jealous. He beat me up and he called me very bad names which started to make me… I started not to believe in myself anymore.

Even after all this time – making myself further my education, improve myself – I started to believe what he was telling me: that I am nobody without him, I would not survive without him, that if he divorces me no man is going to look at me again.

So I lost self-confidence; I started to think that I am not worth anything and stayed and we had a second child. But in the end I had to get out because it was too much – the physical abuse was now not only at me but also the children. This was when I decided it’s better for me to get out of this relationship, even if I fail as he says I will. And I did overcome it with the help of my mother and my sister.

Jeni (female), member of ICW, Namibia

A lost childhood

Due to the fact that my mother was drinking heavily, she was also abusing me. She was taking [beatings from] my father and she was taking that out on me. Since I look just like my father – I’m his ‘twin’ – she would make remarks like: I don’t like you, you are not my child. So I had to cope with a lot of things, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, from a very young age. As a matter of fact you could actually say I didn’t have a childhood: I lost it when I was seven years old.

Gerald (male), member of Khululeka, South Africa

Discrimination in TAC

I have experience quite a lot discrimination, especially against women, because in TAC…80 percent of members are women, but in the leadership positions it’s mostly men….

Female, member of TAC, South Africa

Radio: potential to reduce stigma and violence against women

There’s information, but most is in print form and most people are not readers. The messages on the radio are being given by people who are not positive, so how can you attract a woman who is positive to listen to someone who does not know exactly what it means to live with HIV?

They should put on people living with HIV, get them to come and talk on one-hour slots, talk about their experience. I think this will also reduce stigma and violence, because I am sure that if men start hearing women on the radio talking about their experiences, they will start to understand why they need not to be violent against women.

Jeni (female), member of ICW, Namibia


Gender dimensions is a key theme of the Speaking freely on HIV oral testimony project.


South Africa | Gerald: sharing the burden

South Africa | Jo-Ann: joining the struggle

South Africa | John: a loving family

South Africa | Nomafu: encouraging others

South Africa | Patrick: beauty in equality

South Africa | Sylvia: anger to acceptance

Namibia | CJ: fulfilling our potential

Namibia | Karolina: bringing me peace

Namibia | Jeni: leaving stigma behind

Namibia | Maria: information is essential

Key themes

Introduction to the project

Hopes and visions

Challenging the government

Working with the media

Support through community

Why join… or start a movement?

Living with HIV

Gender dimensions

Identity, culture and context