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Research Transactional sex amongst young people in rural northern Tanzania: an ethnography of youn

Wamoyi et al. Reproductive Health 2010, 7:2
Page 3 of 18
main micro-social factors are presented in the Findings
Economic conditions in sub-Saharan Africa generally
give men far greater power than women. Women rarely
hold land in their own right [33], they generally work
much longer hours than men [34] but largely because of
their domestic responsibilities are far less able to sell their
labour. Consequently most are economically dependent
on men [7]. The gendered division of labour extends to
most areas of work, except for certain farming activities
[25,35], and whilst it gives women power in specific
spheres [36], in general it greatly benefits men, which
some men recognise [7].
However, these patriarchal relations have been being
eroded for over a century. While the influence of mission-
aries on marriage patterns is contested [37], there is no
doubt that the increasing dominance of the cash econ-
omy has undermined the land or cattle-based power of
male elders [24,36,38]. Men's employment initially rein-
forced their economic power, but in recent decades con-
traction of formal employment has left men unable to
fulfil their newly acquired 'bread-winner' role, undermin-
ing their status as head of household [38,39]. Meanwhile
women's entrepreneurial skills and harder work give
them an advantage in the informal sector, reducing their
economic dependence on men and the rationale for mar-
riage [24,36,38-40]. These social changes are almost cer-
tainly at their most advanced in urban areas and may only
be starting in rural areas dominated by subsistence farm-
Systems of kinship and marriage have been important
underlying factors in women's disempowerment [33].
The Sukuma are very similar to their southern neigh-
bours the Nyamwezi, for whom 'rights in the productive
and reproductive capacity of women are in large part
controlled by and transferred for payment between men.'
[41] (pg 72). Bridewealth still determines the nature of
marriage, most importantly giving the groom rights to
the children, but it also, as in Botswana, 'encompasses the
idea that a man has 'paid' for sexual access to the wife' [42]
(pg379). It involves a significant transfer of wealth, partic-
ularly if the bride is young and considered virtuous, typi-
cally six cattle or, increasingly, the cash equivalent (cf.
[43]. Since it is paid by the groom's father to the brides'
father, it gives them considerable influence over their
children's' unions [44]. However, with the socio-eco-
nomic changes eroding patriarchal control, alternatives
to formal marriage, such as kutoroshwa (elopement), have
become increasingly prevalent [25,45], reducing chil-
dren's economic dependence on parents [36,46]. Further-
more, in the towns and increasingly in rural areas some
women feel able to make strategic choices not to get mar-
ried at all [36,38-40].
The most relevant social norms relate to women's sta-
tus and sexual culture. In general, women are of lower
social status and are culturally inhibited from asserting
their interests in public [7,33]. The predominant sexual
culture for young people in rural Mwanza has previously
been described in terms of contradictory norms [46].
These ideal standards of behaviour are not entirely pre-
scriptive but can be seen as resources that can be drawn
on to legitimate behaviour. Sexual activity is constrained
by norms of school pupil abstinence, female sexual
respectability and taboos around the discussion of sex.
However, these norms are incompatible with several
widely held expectations: that sexual activity is inevitable
unless prevented, sex is a female resource to be exploited,
restrictions on sexual activity are relaxed at festivals, and
masculine esteem is boosted through sexual experience.
Most young people cope with these contradictions by
concealing their sexual relationships [46]: as others have
noted elsewhere [24,37], it is generally more important to
observe discretion than restrictive sexual mores. This dis-
cretion is a pre-requisite to managing different sexual
identities in different social contexts, usefully theorised
by Helle-Valle [24] as 'contextualised dividuality'.
Women are greatly concerned to maintain their sexual
respectability, and this norm is particularly important in
relation to negotiating transactional sex. There are sev-
eral widely used terms for women who are thought to be
sexually disreputable, such as 'wasimbe' (women living
independently of a man or unmarried/separated mothers;
singular = msimbe), 'wahuni' (which covers a wide range
of socially sanctioned behaviours but in this context
means 'loose' or 'promiscuous'), and, most derogatory,
'malaya' (prostitute(s)) which refers to women who
explicitly solicit sex, and who have sex with many part-
ners with relatively little selectivity or discretion. As dis-
cussed by Helle-Valle [42](pg 387), it is helpful to
recognise that the universal meaning of 'prostitute' as 'the
personification of the sexually absolute [ly] immoral', may
not fully apply in the same way here. In rural Mwanza, as
in Botswana, the linking of sex with money or gifts is in
most cases not regarded as immoral, and most of the
transactional sex reported in this paper was not regarded
by villagers as 'umalaya' (see findings below), but rather
as a normal aspect of any sexual relationship formation,
continuation and sustenance.
Transactional sex as described here, differs from uma-
laya (prostitution) because of the perceived or actual
selectivity of partners and the perceived moral aspect
(social respectability). Like malaya, some other women
chose to have sex with many overlapping partners over
time, but they were more discreet and considered them-
selves selective in who they chose (e.g. not having sex
with every man who asked). Malaya may instead primar-
ily (or only) consider the money involved, taking it rela-