Sunday, May 29, 2011

spare wheels and side dishes

I just read an excellent article by Jim Wallis (of Sojourner's magazine) about some of the powerful men in America and elsewhere--politicians, sports figures, celebrities, and CEOs--who have been in the news for their disrespectful, abusive and denigrating behavior toward the women in their lives. The revelations have included extramarital relationships, sexual harassment, assault, and more. And yet these men generally maintain their positions in business, politics, and entertainment and seem to suffer few consequences for their actions. Jim Wallis calls for men, as well as women, to speak out forcefully against these abuses. If you are interested in reading his commentary, go to, his blog. It is also on the Sojourners' web site.

Here in southern Africa we hear of "side dishes" and "spare wheels"--the girlfriend a married man may have in addition to his wife. Women bemoan the frequency of this occurrence. They acknowledge that many women stay with their husbands despite these relationships because of economic dependency or religious teachings about divorce.

In addition to these extramarital affairs, another common experience for women is initiation into sexual activity by older men. Teenage girls are frequently seduced, enticed, pressured or forced into sexual encounters, often resulting in pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

These patterns of behavior--early initiation into sex and husbands who are unfaithful--contribute substantially to the incidence of HIV/AIDS among women here. In the age group 15-24, the rate of infection is actually higher for women than it is for men.

The point Jim Wallis made in his commentary about disrespect for and abuse of women was that men must speak up and condemn this behavior. Women regularly respond to such problems by complaining, confiding, and expressing their outrage. Sometimes they organize, as in the "take back the night" movement. He points out that men are less likely to do so.

Here in Zambia I have noticed such matter-of-fact and casual references to the prevalence of girlfriends on the side that it almost sounds like expected, even acceptable, behavior. Unless this attitude changes, the practice will not change. Cultural customs are difficult to confront and challenge, but they can and do change with organized movements and persistent effort. We can begin at home with the socialization of our sons and daughters. And we can speak up to condemn behavior that demeans and harms the dignity of women, whoever is the perpetrator and however common it may seem.

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