This study investigated marriage customs and sexual practices in the context of the HIV and AIDS pandemic in two communities of Mansa District in Zambia. The main objectives of the study were to assess the status of marriage customs and practices; to examine local views on patterns of sexual behaviour; determine whether polygyny, sexual cleansing, levirate marriage, and extra nuptial sex are practiced in the light of the HIV and AIDS epidemic; investigate local views on HIV and AIDS and the perspectives within which the disease is understood; and to explore the roles of traditional leadership and the church with regard to cultural sexual practices and HIV and AIDS.
A variety of data collection techniques were used to collect information for the study. Secondary data was obtained through literature review of relevant official documents, publications, reports and various articles, while primary data were collected by employing Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods. These PRA methods included semi-structured in-depth interviews with key informants and Focus Group Discussions.
The study findings show that marriage customs and practices in Mansa have changed over time because of the influence of modernity, socio-economic and health factors such as the AIDS pandemic. The changes in the socio-economic conditions of the people have tended to have a greater impact on marriage as compared to the impact of the AIDS pandemic. The increase in poverty levels has affected the stability of marriages and the sexual behaviour of people. The need to meet basic requirements like food and shelter has led to an increase in transactional sex and marital infidelity particularly among the unemployed youth and vulnerable women.
The study also found that some marriage practices such as 'dry sex' still persist. Women continue to engage in dry sex practices mainly because of the need to please their husbands. Dry sex practices in the area are perpetuated by power relations and gender roles with men openly admitting that they would desert or divorce their wives if they did not use herbs for dry sex. This subservient orientation makes it difficult for the women to abandon risky practices like dry sex or to negotiate for safe sex practices such as use of condoms when they suspect that their partner has multiple sex partners. This stark inequality in the gender roles, which is part of the local culture, is one of reason why HIV/AIDS is spreading.
Extra-nuptial sexual activity also appears to be common among the people both in rural and urban Mansa. Extra-nuptial sex relations especially among men were very common and this has encouraged the entrenchment of transactional sex among the vulnerable girls and women. Sexual dissatisfaction and poverty seem to be the major factors that lead married women to be involved in extramarital relationships.
Other traditional marriage customs and sexual practices have changed over time. In recent years, some people have abandoned risky practices like sexual cleansing rituals which are associated with the spread of the AIDS epidemic. Some traditional leaders, NGOs and the church have been raising awareness among the local people so that they abandon sexual cleansing practices and adopt alternative non-sexual cleansing rituals. Some level of success has been achieved in this.
The study also found that there has been a decrease in the number of polygynous and levirate marriages in Mansa mainly due to increased knowledge about the high risks of HIV and AIDS infection associated with the involvement of multiple sexual partners in these two types of marriages. However, s<lme people are still involved in polygynous unions and others enter into levirate marriages despite the dangers posed by the HIV pandemic. Poverty and lack of knowledge was identified as the major factor which makes people, for instance, widows to accept to be inherited or 'sexually cleansed' and accept levirate marriages.
A number of policy recommendations emerge from the study findings. Firstly, the government and other agencies like NGOs should continue promoting awareness among traditional leaders and communities about the HIV and AIDS pandemic and channel resources to rural communities since these areas are in need of long-term programmes to combat the pandemic. Secondly, future interventions should target contextual limitations such as household poverty, emancipation of women and literacy to achieve positive results. In other words, government or other intervetltions should have an integrated multi-sectoral approach to addressing the HIV and AIDS pandemic. Thirdly, there is need to further carry out specific and targeted interventions such as educational campaigns to address misconceptions about the HIV and AIDS pandemic. Fourthly, there is need to fully consult influential cultural custodians within the communities on how best to prevent the spread of HIV. Fifthly, there is need to facilitate enhanced collaboration among Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) and traditional leaders in order to promote behaviour change by discouraging communities from conducting risky traditional practices such as dry sex, sexual cleansing and levirate marriages.