By Thakane-Rethabile Shale
Growing up in rural Lesotho in the 1990s, I was faced with the harsh realities of HIV and AIDS from a very early age. This was a time when antiretroviral therapy (ART) was yet to become popular and HIV was a topic discussed in hushed tones, as having a family member who was infected could result in stigmatisation from the whole village.
Fast-forward almost a couple of decades later, HIV prevalence in Southern Africa is still very much high but with ART, less stigmatisation and more information generally one would think Southern Africa is winning. However, if you grew up in the days when just the mention of the word AIDS brought fear to your heart, I would like to believe you have a healthy respect for the virus. So, imagine my surprise when I found out that most women my age do not carry condoms. I have personally gotten so used to having condoms that I buy them like I do milk when I do my grocery shopping. I have condoms in every room of my small home, there are condoms in the jar that sits atop the fridge, condoms on the TV stand, the jumbo boxes sits with the rest of my cosmetics in the bedroom and bathroom and I have smaller boxes in all of my handbags.
This wealth of condoms does not by any means equate to the state of my sex life because in times of drought and in times of splendour I have always had them. I assumed it was something that all adults have. Imagine my surprise then when a new boyfriend was appalled that I had such a huge stash of condoms, this was someone with whom I had sexual relations and once he needed something from my handbag and upon finding condoms he was quite livid. My walking around with a handbag full of condoms, as he put it, was clearly a sign that I was looking to have sex with whoever asked. I put it down to men being generally daft and consulted the girls at the spa where I did my nails. Turned out that, yes, indeed my having condoms everywhere is a sign of loose morals.
My personal morals aside, I was quite surprised that sexually active women do not carry condoms. I still am but after the initial shock, I found that it did make sense. Straight black women, southern African ones at least, are sexually active, enjoy being sexually active but are supposed to pretend that they hate every moment of having a sex life, or at the very least they have to view sex as a reward they bestow upon those who treat them right. Now, I am a very big believer in agency, I support sex work and I support pretending that you do not even like sex if that is what floats your boat. I do, however, find it very irresponsible to leave such a huge aspect of your life in the hands of someone else? I do get that it is a little weird of me to have condoms in the kitchen maybe but to not have them at all? To equate having them as a sign of immorality even! I am beginning to suspect that I grew up in a different era from most of my peers. When I was growing up, there was a funeral every weekend due to a mysterious illness but we all knew it was due to AIDS-related complications. HIV, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and all the other horrific things aside. I find there is a more insidious implication to why women having condoms is viewed as a sign of immorality, the implication that women are not supposed to have full agency of their sexual lives in a way that men are. A notion that has led to, among others, slut-shaming, policing of women’s bodies, female genital mutilation, corrective rape and all sorts of abusive behaviour. Any way you look at it, black women in Africa do not own their bodies and if they cannot even own their bodies is it surprising that at the very worst of African culture women could not own anything?
l Thakane-Rethabile Shale is a lawyer, writer and an investigative journalism intern with the MNNCIJ