Lobola, AIDS and Africa
By Mark Mathabane
Washington Post- Monday , March 27, 2000 ;
As the scourge of AIDS devastates my homeland, South Africa, I find myself reflecting on how the oppression of women has
contributed to the spread of the epidemic there. South Africa has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world. An estimated 4
million people in a nation of 40.5 million carry the virus. Fifty-five percent of those infected are women.
There are several reasons why AIDS is disproportionately victimizing South African women. One is the "Sugar Daddy"
syndrome, by which older men sexually exploit young African girls aged 15 to 19. A second is the high incidence of rape, much of it directed at young girls, who are being victimized because of a belief that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS. A third but less talked-about reason is the tradition of "lobola," under which men "purchase" wives through payment of a dowry in the form of cash or livestock.
Lobola's role in the spread of AIDS was driven home to me by the plight of my sister, Florah. In "African Women: Three
Generations," a book chronicling the struggles she, my mother and my grandmother had with traditional practices and with men, she discusses how lobola invested Collin, the man she married, with power over her life and her body.
"Like a lot of men, he believed that, having paid lobola for me, he had a right to sleep around while it was my duty to stay at
home, cook, clean, take care of the children, remain faithful and never complain. He never considered the dangers of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. He thought himself immune to such diseases, even though daily there were stories of
children born with syphilis, herpes and gonorrhea."
My sister wanted to leave Collin, but lobola made it almost impossible for her to do so. For one, my unemployed father had
spent the down payment of about $35 that Collin had made on Florah's lobola of approximately $350. Not only was my father
unable and unwilling to pay it back, he warned Florah against disgracing the family by leaving Collin. He insisted that if only
Florah would bear Collin children, he would stop philandering.
Florah had problems conceiving because a badly inserted IUD by the staff at the local clinic had damaged her uterus. But under lobola she had to have children, or she would not be considered worth her price, and her husband would be justified in fooling around, purchasing another wife or returning Florah to her parents and demanding his down payment back.
Desperate to have a baby, and thus avoid the stigma that attaches to infertile women, Florah resorted to dubious potions from
traditional healers. Some of these potions have been known to kill women. Eventually Florah did conceive, even though she
experienced severe cramps, fainting spells and bleeding throughout the pregnancy.
Despite the child, a baby girl, Collin's philandering didn't end. Eventually Florah left him. The decision infuriated my father, for it
meant that he wouldn't receive the remainder of the lobola. He chased Florah out of the house, and Collin threatened to take
the child, because under the lobola custom children belong to the father.
Florah's plight is all too common among African women. Many of them cannot leave. Having been bought, they are their
husband's property. Even where women enjoy legal rights under the law, as they do in South Africa and in many African
countries, few avail themselves of this resource because of the stigma that attaches to women who complain about philandering
husbands. And in the past apartheid courts have been loath to interfere with traditional practices.
So the women stayed and suffered in silence. Even when they knew that their husbands were exposing themselves to the AIDS
virus, many dared not bring up the issue of condoms. To do so was to impugn their husband's manhood.
Studies have shown that it's mostly the men who first get AIDS in the cities, usually from girlfriends and prostitutes. They then
bring it back to their wives in the rural areas. They in turn pass it on to children.
Vice President Al Gore was right to have focused attention on AIDS during his appearance before the U.N. Security Council in January. More money is needed for vaccine research, prevention programs and education campaigns. Congress should
approve the expenditure of the modest $150 million the administration has requested. And a way must be found to persuade
pharmaceutical companies to make their AIDS drugs more affordable to poor nations. But in the end, money and these other
important measures will be effective only if issues such as the oppression of women are vigorously addressed.
The writer is an author, most recently, of "Ubuntu."