Multiple partner relationships, underscored by 'gifts', can be a key survival strategy for many poor women. Driven by poverty and the desire for a better life, many women and girls find themselves using sex as a commodity in exchange for goods, services, money, accommodation, or other basic necessities. Such “transactional sex” involves non-marital sexual relationships, often with multiple and older male partners. It reflects men’s superior economic position and access to resources, women’s difficulties in meeting basic needs, and the cultural value placed on men having multiple sexual partners.
Age factors put girls at risk
Sex between young women and considerably older men is common in many countries, including in Asia, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas in Asia, for example, this often occurs within (arranged) marriages, in many African countries the phenomenon can be more diffuse and is often tied to the prestige of families that bond for mutual benefit, or to economies of need.
Intergenerational and transactional sex are frequently intertwined. Research in parts of Africa, for example, has found that older men often help girls’ families meet essential needs such as school fees, transport costs and groceries. Nevertheless, the hidden costs can be high. Men in their late twenties and thirties are more likely to be HIV-infected, while the dependencies built into these relationships limit women’s abilities to protect themselves from HIV infection, especially when the perception of younger women as “pure” encourages men to avoid using condoms.
In addition, the risk of becoming infected during unprotected vaginal intercourse is greater for women than men. The younger the girl, the greater the risk because the lining of the neck of the womb is not fully developed. In southern Africa, for example, women and girls often get infected with HIV almost as soon as they start having sex.
Until death do us part
Focusing programmes on persuading girls to abstain from sex until marriage is of little help to many young women. In some places, the main HIV risk factor for a woman is the fact that she is faithful to a husband with previous or current other sex partners. This because young women, particularly teenagers, often marry men significantly older than they are, and these men are more likely to have had other partners and therefore are more likely to have been exposed to HIV. The fact that the balance of power in many relationships is tilted in favour of men can have life-or-death implications. Women and girls often lack the power to abstain from sex or to insist on condom use—even when they suspect that the man has had other sexual partners and might be infected with HIV. The desire, or pressure, for children, on the part of either spouse, may be another reason for not using condoms.