Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Adolescent Sexuality in Southern Africa: Cultural Norms and Contemporary Behavior

In Southern Africa, contemporary sexual relationships are associated with high levels of pregnancy-related school dropouts, abortions, and HIV-transmission. It is estimated that one out of every six sexually active adults in Botswana is HIV positive, and it is not clear yet to what extent recent AIDS campaign messages will
lead to changes in sexual behavior. This rapid increase in HIV infections in Southern Africa has been attributed to contemporary attitudes towards sexual relationships and the failure to use condoms. These recent social problems demonstrate the need and urgency of enhancing our understanding of contemporary sexual relationships.

In many African societies the traditional norms regarding female sexual behavior have been challenged by western influences, including western religion, mass education, mass media, and modern family legislation. These changes are often believed to have led to a new concept of sexuality based on romantic love and increasing levels of sexual permissiveness. However, while exposure to Western cultures and religions may cause a gradual change in sexual norms and behavior in this direction, it is necessary to interpret these changes in relation to the social context within which sexual behavior occurs. Because of changes in marriage customs, especially later ages at marriage and the gradual abandonment of formal polygyny, non-marital sexual activity tends to be common. In many African societies gender plays an important part in sexual socialization, and double sexual standards remain commonplace. Moreover, because of gender inequalities in autonomy and access to resources (in conjunction with economic hardship), sexuality often has a transactional component that remains poorly understood by policy-makers. Consequently, sexual behavior may deviate from the traditional cultural norms, but at the same time also deviate from the modern Western norms.

Although the study of sexual behavior is relevant to social demographers because of its connection to marriage, fertility, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, demographic studies of African societies have typically not devoted much attention to the socio-economic and cultural context surrounding sexual practices. Africanist anthropologists have emphasized that in order to enhance our understanding of the meaning of sexual behavior, it is necessary to contextualize such behavior, and to use a more ethnographic, focused, and integrated approach.

This article briefly reviews the ethnographic literature on the cultural and religious norms about sexual behavior among the Tswana of Botswana, describes patterns of sexual behavior and discusses explanations for the deviations from the traditional norms using data from the 1995 Population Services International Botswana Adolescent Reproductive Health Survey in conjunction with recent focus group discussions conducted in Botswana.

The Tswana

The Tswana-speaking peoples make up the large majority of the population of Botswana, and in South Africa they are also found in the Bophutatswana regions of the western and central districts of Transvaal and in the northern districts of Cape Province. A relatively small number of Tswana (about 6,000) live in Namibia (Republic of Namibia 1994). Despite local variations in dialect and culture, the Tswana are considered sufficiently homogenous to be classified as a single group. The Tswana are patrilineal, tracing descent through the father. Rural Tswana practice agriculture to obtain their staple foods (mostly maize, but many also plant potatoes, tomatoes and other crops), but show a large interest in animal husbandry (mostly cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, and horses).
Families who own cattle typically have a cattle-post where cattle and small stock are kept. Such cattle-posts may be located as far as 100 miles from the family compound. Because many males are working either at cattle-posts or as wage laborers in urban areas a Tswana village typically has a surplus of women.

Transformations of cultural prescriptions about sexuality

Contact with Western societies had a large impact on many southern African societies and cultures, through economic changes, urbanization, education, and religion. Male labor migration to industrial and farming areas in both Botswana and South Africa is common, and the resulting prolonged absence of males had an important impact on many families. Christianity had a big impact on many traditional customs. Originally, many Christian missions tried to develop a European type of Christianity, which prohibited aspects of traditional culture such as polygyny and the payment of bridewealth. Because western religion conflicted with traditional culture, some groups switched to different churches, or formed their own churches. To enhance their appeal the missions gradually emphasized providing a national religion based on Christian principles, while incorporating traditional beliefs and aspirations as much as possible.

In Botswana, Christianity is now the official religion of most Tswana tribes, although not everybody is a practicing member or tries to lead a Christian life. These Western influences have had a strong impact on traditional family life in southern Africa.

Conjugal Sexual Unions

Traditionally, Tswana marriages were arranged and boys and girls typically were not allowed to choose their prospective spouses. A Tswana traditional marriage would not be valid unless bridewealth, bogadi, had been transferred from the family of the groom to the family of the bride. Nowadays Christian marriage, which has incorporated the custom of bogadi, is common, and many people respect individual partner choice.

Christianity, and the spread of Western morals in general, have increased the likelihood that parents in southern Africa will consider their children’s preferences for a spouse, and the Magistrate marriage, which does not require parental consent, allows young couples to engage in love marriages. However, church marriages are more popular than Magistrate marriages because most ethnic groups consider the latter cheap marriages (because they do not involve bridewealth) that will not last long.

Non-conjugal Unions

Nowadays, non-conjugal unions are common in southern Africa, and often a conjugal union is not established until one or more children have been born to a couple. After a child has been born the couple may start living together, and may or may not have a church, legal, or traditional marriage. Living-together arrangements are easy because no permission from relatives is required (at least not legally), and inexpensive because no ceremony is involved. Partners to such unions also have a greater amount of freedom; they can act as individuals and can conduct their lives as they see fit, and their behavior cannot be questioned to the same extent by their partner. Either partner can terminate a living-together relationship at will. Today, living-together unions are common among most groups. In urban areas, little stigma is attached to living-together unions although the churches strongly disapprove of them. In rural areas such unions were traditionally disapproved of, and still are, although they are becoming more accepted. Nevertheless, children from living-together unions may not be accepted for baptism in Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches; the African Methodist Episcopal Church is more liberal and allows the first three children of such a union to be baptized, although living-together couples cannot take communion.

Among the Tswana most women engage in premarital sexual unions, often visiting unions, which may lead to the birth of one or more children. Thus, parenthood before the completion of the marriage process is common, although having a child before the marriage process has been initiated is said to be shameful. In many cases a relationship will break up before the process of marriage is completed. In some cases unmarried motherhood may be a choice because an unmarried woman who becomes pregnant can also claim compensation for seduction (for the first child only), or because children can take care of them in old age. Families may also discourage their sons from marrying the mother(s) of their children because their labor and financial assistance is needed by the household.

While these patterns of non-marital unions and non-marital childbearing may originally have resulted from the sex imbalance resulting from male labor migration, the current situation seems to be rooted in a new set of values related to sexuality, marriage, and the family. Hence, it is important to examine how sexual norms are transmitted to today’s adolescents and to examine the mechanisms that control premarital sexual behavior.

Transmission of Sexual Norms and Control of Premarital Sexual Behavior

Traditionally, many ethnic groups instructed adolescents about matters regarding adult life during their initiation ceremonies. For example, among the Tswana the initiation ceremony for boys, called bogwere, taught young men about tribal laws and traditions; similarly, during the bojale ceremony girls were instructed about domestic life, including sexual behavior and behavior towards men. Sexual intercourse was considered proper only for couples who were married. Since childbearing should occur within marriage, out-of-wedlock childbearing was considered deviant, and premarital sexual relations were condemned and punished.

To enforce these rules the Tswana had social institutions that controlled premarital sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Premarital sexual activity could be avoided in part by giving young people few opportunities to associate. Upon puberty, boys and girls were kept apart as much as possible. Boys spent a lot of time at the cattle-posts while unmarried girls remained in the village with their mother, with whom they shared a hut at night. The custom of child betrothals for girls further prevented premarital sexual activity.

Due to increasing contact with European civilization, particularly since World War I, and because of the influences from Western social, economic, and religious institutions, traditional customs and behavior are gradually being modified, and the control of premarital sexual behavior has weakened. Young people have more opportunities to meet nowadays. Boys and girls meet in schools, and boys no longer spend a lot of time at cattle-posts but instead go to trading stores and dances where they can meet girls. Many adolescents grow up in single-parent households, and in such households parental control of adolescents sexual behavior may be more difficult. Due to the influence of Christianity, the traditional initiation ceremonies have been gradually abandoned, thereby reducing parental control and creating a gap in family life education. Religious institutions have little control over premarital sexual relations, even though national Church festivals now substitute for the male initiation ceremonies. Although the Church advocates sexual abstinence for the unmarried; in practice, even the most religious young people do not regard it as wrong to have sexual relations, provided that they can avoid conception.

In the past, the socialization of Tswana children was the responsibility of the family, but nowadays this is done at least partly by the educational system. Thus far, schools have not been able to control premarital sexual activity and pregnancy. The Ministry of Education requires pregnant schoolgirls to drop out of school for a period of one year. However, the large number of girls who leave school because of pregnancy indicates that this rule is not effective in deterring premarital sexual relations. The recent incorporation of family life education in the school curricula may help better prepare adolescents for adult life and increase more responsible sexual behavior.

In contemporary Tswana society, it is accepted that boys and girls will be fully sexually experienced. Few girls are virgins upon marriage, although girls are expected to be discreet in their love affairs. Youths who are unable to find a lover are disrespected by their peers. Parents may even condone premarital sexual relationships. When unmarried youths come to see a girl, it is considered good form for the parents to leave them alone after a while (although the parents may tell a boy that he is not welcome if they do not like him). If a girl accepts a boy as her lover, it is common for him to visit her regularly, and to spend the night with her. The fact that older children now have separate huts facilitates such affairs, and calling on a girl has become an established part of modern courtship. Such informal relationships may last for several months, or even as long as a year. Following engagement a girl is expected to be at home at night so that her fiancé can visit her, as he is expected to do. Commonly, the boy will stay alone with the girl in her hut at night, and they will sleep together without objection from her parents (if that was not already the case).

A number of factors can be identified that may help explain contemporary premarital sexual relationships. The decline of polygyny and the absence of many young men at labor centers, reduce the chances that women can marry early, and makes them more willing to accept the advances of a lover. A girl who really likes a boy typically complies with his wishes to sleep with her in order to prevent that he moves to another girl, although it is proper for her to refuse the first time he asks. With the increasing emphasis on monogamy, many men also expect their girlfriends to prove their fertility before they will commit to marriage.

Financial hardship and aspirations may further entice young women (and sometimes men) to engage in premarital sexual relationships with partners of better socio-economic status. Many young women hope to be rich, and due to the lack of employment opportunities some women are tempted to engage in a relationship, and perhaps live with, a man who can provide for them. Wage migration to towns has allowed young men to become financially independent, and has made it easy for young men to attract and seduce women.

In this context, it is not surprising that sexual relations, marriage, and childbearing have become separated. It is common for unmarried women to be sexually active and have children, and there are a significant number of women who have children with different fathers. As Mulindi remarks:
“...for the women sex may function as a source of employment, a method for educating children and bringing up a family, a method for establishing ownership or proprietary rights in a relationship, or as a means of acquiring much needed tangible or emotional support.”

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