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Pervasiveness in exchange for marks or cash

This article is based on a Participatory Action Research (PAR) study on sexual harassment currently undertaken by a young female WITSIE (Women Intellectuals Transforming Scholarship In Education) group at the University of the Witwatersrand. This article aims to outline the link between sexual harassment and women’s vulnerability to HIV. A specific focus is placed on multiple concurrent partners among young black women in relationships with older men and other related issues.

Sexual harassment (SH) and gender-based violence interact as factors leading to increasing vulnerability to HIV infections. Sexual harassment is prevalent in the South African society, workplaces and school settings where hierarchal power dynamics often exist. Backer and Ellege (2011) define and explain SH as follows:

SH can be perpetrated by or directed at males or females. It consists of verbal or nonverbal messages relating to a person’s/group’s sexuality or gender that are physically or emotionally threatening. It could also include attempts to coerce someone into a sexual relationship, perhaps in return for a reward, or it could involve an actual sexual assault.

This is not the standard definition of SH; it can be subjective, differing based on individuals’ perceptions and on how they understand gestures or comments. This was demonstrated by male and female participants during a PAR workshop at WITS, whereby they felt that constant sexual jokes by associates may offend some people, perceived as SH. Yet, it may not offend another individual. Therefore, it is important to note that it is SH when the behaviour is constant and makes the victim uncomfortable (Edwards-Jauch, et al. 2012).

Sexual harassment is reported to be prevalent in some universities of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia (Edwards-Jauch, et al., 2012). Often it takes place at school or university level where the lecturers or those in positions of power can exert their dominance over students or subordinates. Even though both men and women can be victims of SH, studies show that women are more likely to be the victims and men the perpetrators of the unwelcomed behaviour (Edwards-Jauch, et al. 2012). Factors such as ethnicity, socio-economic status, peer pressure, gender and media among other things, increase the victimisation of young women, making them fall prey to SH. Thus, potentially leading them to unprotected sex which increases their risk of HIV infection and other STIs, teenage and unplanned pregnancies, as well as abortions.

The African context
At the University of Namibia, students coined a term “sexually transmitted marks”, which refers to lecturers who exchange marks for sexual favours. For example, it was reported that lecturers would pass students in exchange for unwanted and unsolicited sexual advances, like making sexually suggestive comments and touching students (Edwards-Jauch, et al. 2012). Even though this may be commonplace, students hardly ever report these advances because these lecturers intimidate them and a culture of fear and silence is re-enforced. Because of the lack of assertiveness, as well as the lack of knowledge on their sexual and reproductive rights, students often do not even attempt to negotiate condom use and are left vulnerable to contracting HIV. Although it may be viewed as lecturers being the perpetrators who make sexual advances at students, occasionally students may be the instigators who make passes at lecturers in exchange for higher grades. However, if the lecturer agrees, they are abusing their authority since they are in a position to refuse such attention.

The South African context
In South Africa, young women share similar experiences in the university context. The factors that influence the choice of sex partners include the availability of partners, low socio-economic background, the desire to conform and financial incentives (having sex for money) (Edwards-Jauch, et al. 2012). On occasion, young women aspiring to an expensive lifestyle might seek concurrent partners to meet their needs. There is some evidence that girls of lower socio-economic backgrounds enter into relationships with older men as a source of income rather than for sexual satisfaction (Edwards-Jauch, et al. 2012). This might be because of the pressures of the university lifestyle, which requires one to lead a rather costlier lifestyle. The outcomes are, since older men know that they are in a powerful position in the relationship they can refuse to use condoms during sexual interactions, which increases the woman’s vulnerability. According to literature, older men often have multiple concurrent partners and may seldom use condoms (Edwards-Jauch, et al. 2012). This leads to increased HIV-infection risk for these women.

There is a need to strengthen and empower young women not to fall victim to SH. Even though sex is a private issue between two individuals, HIV risk because of unprotected sex is a public health issue. To empower young women, educators and parents should support and inform young people of the risks of HIV. Young people should be encouraged to engage in discourses on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.


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Author: Andile Mthombeni
Andile is a B.A undergrad majors (Sociology & Psychology) Currently she forms part of a research project called WITSIE under the AGI (African Gender Institute)  - Young Women's Leadership Program which aims to enhance and empower young women's skills in research.
Reviewed by:
Jean Fourie (MPhil), Michelle Moorhouse (MBBCh, DA) and Alfred Thuthloa (MPhil)

Date: April 2014

Preferred citation
Mthombeni, A. (2014) Pervasiveness in exchange for marks or cash, AfroAIDSinfo. Issue 14 no. 4, Public (Open access).

Last updated: 1 April, 2014