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Kheliwe’s Story: Male Polygamy and HIV Infection in Malawi

by Lerato Manyozo

kheliwe 1
A woman’s hand closing as though what she had been reaching for had suddenly escaped her grasp. Photo and copyright: Erik Törner, IM Individuell Människohjälp and used under a Creative Commons license.
Even before we begin talking, Kheliwe* has tears in her eyes. She is HIV positive and still battling to come to terms with the fact that her husband, now deceased, infected her on her matrimonial bed.

“I’m sorry Lerato,” she says, as I hand her some tissue to wipe her face. “It’s been six years since I found out, but each time I think or talk about it, the pain resurfaces. I have forgiven my husband and my naïveté. I have accepted my situation. But I just can’t fight the hurt he inflicted on me. I trusted him with my life; I was so young, so innocent.” With a distant look in her eyes, she begins her narration.

I had a few boyfriends as a child with whom I exchanged heart-imprinted letters, sweets and innocent pecks on the cheek. But my husband was my first true love. We met in college. I was studying to become a pharmacist, he a doctor. Even though I went to parties and had typical college fun, I stuck to one principle – I would never have sex before marriage, irrespective of the partner, the situation or the circumstance. A lot of my friends were getting pregnant at that early age, some had contracted STIs, and there were rumours that a few among us were HIV positive. While in secondary school, a classmate of ours died after enduring an unsafe abortion. A part of the fetus had remained in her and began to putrefy. It was a painful death and a wake-up call to me. Added to this, probably because of my solid Christian foundation, something at the back of my mind kept nagging, “No sex before marriage, no sex before marriage!”

Geoffrey* understood, and we abstained for the three years that we were in a relationship. We were inseparable, he was my best friend, and getting married to him a few months after he graduated came very naturally to us both. I had graduated earlier and was already working at the time.

It wasn’t until we’d been married for two years that cracks began appearing in our relationship. They say money changes people, and Geoffrey was no exception. He got several promotions at work and within the space of a year, things changed completely. He began drinking a lot more and going out four days in a week. Some nights, he never showed up at the house at all. If I questioned him, he would get very angry and defensive. He told me that as a man, he had to be out there getting the stories fresh off the grill, sourcing business information, and acquiring new contacts. He said he did all this so he could feed the family – his son, his sister, and myself.

“I do everything for you Kheliwe! The least you can do is be grateful, you selfish b*tch!” This was what he said after he had disappeared for an entire weekend and come back home reeking of cheap perfume. I started seeing the signs. There were other women in his life. Some even called to threaten me. Others would text me to say, “Don’t worry about your husband, he is here with me,” and indeed Geoffrey would be out at the time. Because my mother had passed on, I took my worries to my aunt. She told me this would pass, that all married men cheated.

Unsatisfied, I approached our marriage counselors (ankhoswe), both of whom were men. They held half-hearted talks with us and advised me to pray hard over it! They said if he was taking care of the family, then who was I to worry? Rumours of sightings, mistresses and one-night stands started flying thick and fast. I prayed harder, for him and for us. I loved him too much to walk away, in spite of it all. Deep down, I was too scared to build a life without him, to become a single mother, to be a divorcee. So I stayed.

Then, in the second month of my pregnancy with our second child, my world came crashing down. The compulsory HIV test had come back positive. I couldn’t believe it. I was in denial and just wanted to die but I had this life in me, so I had to fight, I had to live. It was the worst time of my life. I, the girl who had only known one man, who had abstained from premarital sex, who was always so careful about pins, needles, toothbrushes and other things, had contracted HIV on my marital bed? I was shattered.

When I told Geoffrey about it, he threw me out, accusing me of having infected him with the virus. So, while I took medication, ate healthy and fought to live, he spiraled into the fast life of alcohol, parties and women. He took one of his mistresses as a wife and soon fell ill. He never fully recovered and was sick on and off until he died, all within the course of two years. I believe it was because he was in denial and because he was living so recklessly. Otherwise, he could have lived longer. Do I have any kind words for him? Well, he was the father of my two boys, both HIV free. But he signed my life imprisonment form, Lerato. The only difference is that instead of me being trapped behind bars, I have this virus stuck inside me. I take medication every day now and sometimes choke at the sight of antibiotics. But it’s the price I have to pay to live and to provide for my children.

In church, we made our vows, and I handed over my life to Geoffrey, but he squashed it between adultery, selfishness and greed. I am a cynic now, and wonder why we tell our young girls to save themselves for marriage when our culture perpetuates infidelity and celebrates a man who exercises his sexual prowess with multiple partners. Are they saving themselves to die on their marital beds where they are most vulnerable? How does Africa put an end to this? So many women have met a fate like mine. Some are not even aware their husbands are on ARVs because they keep and take their medication in the office. Is this not tantamount to murder?

Kheliwe’s story is not an isolated incident. In African societies, the practice of male polygamy is culturally accepted. In a 2003 study about HIV and condom use in South Africa, males described having multiple partners as acceptable and even desirable. Fifty-nine percent of the subjects interviewed had more than one sexual partner and 22 percent had three or more.

Because women in Africa, especially married women, often lack the power to dictate conditions within intimate relationships, it is very difficult for them to negotiate condom use with their partners, putting them at high risk of HIV infection. Even though most are aware of their spouse being unfaithful to them, they are powerless to do anything more than hope or pray that they do not become infected on their marital beds.

The situation is the same in India, where a study of 400 women attending an STI clinic in Pune showed that 25 percent were infected with STIs, 14 percent were HIV positive, 93 percent of these were married women, and 91 percent had not had sex with anyone other than their husbands.
Ugandan AIDS activist Beatrice Were was a virgin when she married, but she discovered shortly after her husband died that he had infected her with HIV. “I had abstained and remained faithful, but ultimately it was meaningless,” she explains. “And so I was left at 22, widowed with two baby daughters, and enveloped by a cloud of bitterness that took years to disperse.”

Ms. Were became one of the first women in Uganda to publicly declare her HIV status. She founded the National Community of Women Living with AIDS (NACWOLA) in 1993, one of the first organizations on the African continent aimed at supporting women with HIV and lobbying for their rights. The organization campaigns for mother-to-child treatment, access to anti-retroviral medications (ARVs), and gives comfort to some 40,000 women.

Marriage does not always protect a woman from being infected with HIV. Protecting women from being being sentenced to death on their marital beds requires a lot of work. Women need to have enough knowledge to make informed decisions and be empowered. They need financial backing and professional training so that they can get jobs and start up small businesses to gain independence from their unfaithful husbands. Our culture needs to be rewritten so that polygamous men are not celebrated, young girls are no longer given away to older men, and women are confident enough to demand condom use in intimate relations with adulterous spouses.

But who takes up the torch to lead us in this valuable fight?

*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities.

About the Author: Lerato Manyozo lives and works in Malawi. Her work has been published in local publications such as the Daily Times and Nation newspapers. She has also written for the South African based Gender Links Opinion and Commentary. Her work focuses on human rights, socio-economic development, health, and climate change. Her vision is to bring to light in the international media the issues Malawians are facing.

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