African women also lack authority. Just this year, Zimbabwe's Supreme Court ruled that women have no more status or rights in the family than a "junior male"—usually an adolescent. If a wife wants to take a trip, explains Thoko Matshe, director of the Women's Resource Center in the capital Harare, "she has to sit her husband down, get the guy in a good mood, and ask him if she can go. If you cannot negotiate that, you cannot negotiate sex."

In most sub-Saharan traditional cultures,men pay for their wives, which gives them license to dominate the relationship. The very concept of marital rape doesn't exist in most of Africa, and even the aunties—traditional marriage counselors for many young African wives—tell women that they cannot refuse sex with their husbands. Thoko Ngwenya of Zimbabwe's Musasa Project, which fights domestic violence, explains the mindset: "Once a man has paid lobola"—the word for dowry in several southern African languages—"they are not forcing their wife to have sex. It's just their right."

The sexual subservience of women is inculcated long before adulthood. For example, traditional Shona girls are taught to pull the lips of their labia to lengthen them so that men can play with them during foreplay, yet women are not supposed to touch their husband's penis. Indeed, in some cultures, female circumcision removes the most sexually sensitive part of a woman's body—her clitoris. "For women," says Caroline Maposhere of Zimbabwe's Women and AIDS Support Network, "there is no sexuality, only fertility."

Anna Adhiambo (left) and her mother-in-law Consolata Atieno: Anna was kicked out of her home when she left her husband’s cousin, who had "inherited" her.
photo: Mark Schoofs
Anna Adhiambo (left) and her mother-in-law Consolata Atieno: Anna was kicked out of her home when she left her husband’s cousin, who had "inherited" her.

Ironically, the prohibition against wives participating fully and actively in sex can itself promote the spread of the virus. Eliot Ma-gunje runs counseling groups for men at The Centre. He hears men complain that their wives' passivity "destroys the enjoyment of sex—she's just lying there like a log. 'Why are we going out?' men ask. 'Because a prostitute is 100 percent what I want. My wife is just for cooking and washing.' "

Of course, real-life relations between men and women are more complex. Jane, a Zimbabwean woman who asked that her last name not be used, says, "If your husband demands sex you are not allowed to deny him, but in practice you communicate and understand each other." The trouble is that such communication takes place on a field steeply tilted in favor of the man. Jane, for example, knew that her husband had a girlfriend on the side, and she took the step of asking him to use a condom. "My husband answered, 'I cannot use a condom with my wife,' " Jane recalls. "So I think that's why I got infected." She's not alone. A study from Zimbabwe found that more than half of women with STDs contracted their illnesses from their husbands. Marriage, say many AIDS workers, is a risk factor.

Anecdotal reports indicate that dry sex is waning among educated, urban young people. But there are also loud calls to reject Western gender roles, which are said to emasculate men. Even in the cities, says Matshe, "it's 50-50." Of course, most Africans still live in rural areas or small towns. And changing sexual practices is never easy, in part because they touch fundamental issues of personal identity and sexual roles.

It's not surprising that men like dry sex—the swollen tissues make the vagina smaller and, therefore, make the man feel bigger. Also, some men (and women) find vaginal secretions repugnant, while others don't like the sound of wet sex. And to many men, a vagina that is too wet and loose can signify infidelity.

But some women also prefer dry sex. Mhakeni stopped only because she is HIV-positive and wants to protect herself against getting any sexually transmitted diseases that might weaken her immune system. Despite the pain of dry sex, she favors it. "It's our culture," she explains. Then she adds a reason researchers and AIDS workers say they hear over and over again: "If I don't use herbs, our men will go with someone else." Indeed, Mhakeni sells the herbs, and even when she warns women of the risks, they still buy. "They say, 'It is okay if HIV is brought in by my husband, because at least I will still be married.' "

Fanuel Adala Otuko looks every inch the leader of Kenya's Luo people: old, ramrod straight, missing six lower teeth pulled at age 12 as a rite of passage. "It is painful," he says, "but you cannot cry."

The Luos no longer pull their children's teeth, but Otuko and other elders want to revive some of the Luo's other traditions, especially those they believe might slow the spread of HIV, which has devastated them. In Kenya, Luo land is one of the hardest-hit areas in the country, with the rate of infection among adults in Kisumu, the city where Otuko lives, topping 20 percent.

All over Africa, AIDS workers are beginning to target male behavior. Around Kisumu, they are especially concerned about the fish merchants on the shores of Lake Victoria, who lure young girls with money. But Otuko and other Luo elders focus on women.

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