Navigating Sexuality in Africa: The nexus between contemporary behaviors, cultural norms, and gender

1 března, 2024 • English language content • by

Apart from referring to the physical features associated with sex, Sexuality is a broad concept that is crucial to the human species. It also encompasses gender roles, sexual orientation, pleasure, and intimacy. It is expressed in people’s thoughts, fantasies, desires, values, behaviors, attitudes, roles, and relationships (World Health Organisation, 2006). It refers to the individual sexual practices, lifestyles, and identities (Scott, 2010). In Sub-Saharan Africa, adolescent Sexuality is a multifaceted stage influenced by the interaction of numerous factors: biological, social, economic, cultural, political, and religious (WHO, 2006). This crucial developmental stage is characterized by self-discovery and adventure. Moreover, it is greatly influenced by traditional values, various African cultures, and contemporary influences, creating a tricky navigation space for adolescents.

Overview of Adolescent Sexuality in Africa

Africa has language, ethnicity, and cultural diversity (Fishman, 1999), resulting in diversity in adolescent sexuality (Irvine, 1994). Despite these diverse cultural views, expectations, and convictions, ideas regarding sexuality have foundations in long-standing traditions and customs. Societal norms and taboos have a significant impact on how adolescents understand and express their sexuality (Spronk, 2009). African societies have cultural norms that forbid open conversations about sex and sexual relations (Maswetu & Bhana, 2018), ensuring they remain in the shadows as silence is the norm. Consequently, adolescents are generally deprived of thorough and accurate information, causing misunderstandings, unsafe conduct, and heightened susceptibility to STIs, HIV, and unintended pregnancies (Laurenzi et al., 2023; Maharaj, 2022).

Sexuality in Zimbabwe: Gender and cultural norms

Adolescent Sexuality in Zimbabwe, just like in the rest of Africa, is greatly influenced by traditional gender norms and expectations (Bhana, 2018), where different norms on men and women about behavior, modesty, and sexual expression are frequently imposed by society, leading to inequality and sexual double standards (Palit & Allen, 2019; Gomez-Berrocal et al., 2022). Such inequalities are often a result of these gender dynamics, which also have an impact on young people’s experiences, opportunities, and access to sexual health information and resources. Sexuality, in this regard, is a social construct that has an intimate link to dominance and power (Chisale & Moyo, 2016). For instance, abstinence, virginity, purity, and marriage have deep cultural significance that influences teenage attitudes and actions (Bhana, 2016). There are social institutions that have been put in place to control and govern the sexual conduct of adolescents, including, among others, the family, church, religious, and cultural practices (Wynn & Hassainein, 2017) and society at large.

Abstinence, one of the core gender and cultural norms, is highly valued for both boys and girls in Zimbabwe (Chisale, 2016; Maswetu & Bhana, 2018). Closely related to this is the concept of virginity, a status of not having experienced penile-vaginal intercourse, resulting in innocence and purity (Beers, 2012). Virginity is generally expected for both boys and girls, although girls are expected more to be virgins than boys (Museka & Machingura, 2014). The upholding of virginity has individual and family social benefits and effects, too, especially where the girl fails to keep her virginity. The benefits include the family receiving the ‚cow for appreciation of chastity‘ from a prospective son-in-law (mombe yechimanda ) (Vengayi, 2016) cited in (Maswetu & Bwana, 2016, p. 2). Failure to abstain from sex and losing virginity often leads to disapproval, punishment, and stigmatization, especially for girls (Meekers & Ahmed, 1997).

The nexus between contemporary ideas on adolescent sexuality, culture, and gender

Social norms and cultural traditions regarding adolescent sexuality and sexual behaviour in Africa have changed and are continuously evolving. These contemporary ideas that came through education, globalization, mass media, urbanization, legislation, the internet, and religion have mainly impacted sexuality in African societies. This has brought about a paradigm shift in the political, economic, and social spheres, ultimately affecting sexuality. Traditionally, the livelihood of Zimbabwean families, like elsewhere in Africa, depended on subsistence farming in the communal lands (Kemete, 1998). Industrialization and urban migration resulted in families moving to towns and cities for work and education. Apart from creating employment and better education, this situation also created new sexuality value systems that moved from family and community to individual-based rights. In this regard, adolescents are engaging in sexuality without family or community guidance, as was the case before. They also moved away from dating people within their communities and ended up having relationships with strangers with different traditional values. In this regard, the internet has provided young adults with dating platforms. The combination of already existent gender inequalities and the emergence of economic hardships due to contemporary factors resulted in Sexuality being transactional (Chang et al., 2021) and not just relationships that would lead to marriage, thereby falling short of both traditional cultural norms and contemporary norms (Meekers & Ahmed, 1997).

Adolescent sexuality and religion

Religion, like industrialization, also brought about a shift in traditional values and views. Traditionally, marriage was a social affair involving family and community members. However, religion, in this instance, Christianity, brought about a scenario where choosing a spouse became an individual affair that neither had any older people’s interference nor guidance, as was the case previously. Such a scenario has resulted in cohabitation, unwanted pregnancies, STIs, and HIV (Chang et al., 2021). Although once frowned upon, such types of unions have generally become acceptable and the norm due to issues of religion and gender policies and rights (Pendleton, 1994; Pennington & Harpending, 1991; Daly et al., 2023).

The interplay between culture, gender, religion, and contemporary ideas has created profound changes in sexuality that require continuous understanding and a multi-sectoral approach to develop interventions and strategies to help adolescents safely navigate this crucial stage. A national multi-sectoral approach led by the government through the Zimbabwe National Aids Council as the coordinating body for all governmental and non-governmental institutions working on sexual and reproductive health and rights is part of the critical strategy to try and understand and harmonize the relationship between gender, culture, religion, education and all the other contemporary aspects that impact negatively on adolescent sexuality. The found strategies would ensure the safe navigation of the young adults into sexuality issues.

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