HARARE, 18 October 2007 (PlusNews) - There's a weekly television
soap about the phenomenon, and even a hit rap song, as
Zimbabweans begin to own up to "small houses" - long-term illicit
sexual relationships - and their impact on HIV transmission.
"The small house is a house of peace where I can rest mentally
and physically while being treated as a king. My responsibility
is to pay the rent and buy food. When I do buy the woman anything
she is very grateful, whereas my wife and children at the big
house feel it is their right, and might not see the need to
appreciate what I do. Sexually, I can do at the small house that
which I do not necessarily do in my house," one man commented
There is nothing new in extra-marital affairs, but what
researchers are beginning to appreciate is how casual sex is
increasingly being replaced by semi-formal relationships, in
which safer sex is rarely practiced.
Two factors seem to be driving the "small house" phenomenon:
Zimbabwe's economic crisis, which has left women financially
vulnerable and dependent, and AIDS awareness, which has reduced
men's appetite for casual sex.
"The desire for multiple sexual partners has convinced men that
small houses could be a safer way of continuing to enjoy sex with
multiple partners, rather than choosing monogamy and
faithfulness, which are widely viewed as Western ideals not
applicable to Africans," Lois Chingandu, executive director of
the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination
Service (SAfAIDS), said in a recent discussion paper.
Men interviewed felt secure that their new-found partners were
faithful only to them, and that using condoms would therefore be
deemed an insult. But the reality, Chingandu found, was that
these were high-risk relationships.
"Zimbabweans must openly confront and condemn small houses, as
they are a form of high-risk, multiple, concurrent sexual
relations. The current silent diplomacy found in most families is
silently fuelling HIV and AIDS, and needs to be stopped to save
lives and reduce the numbers of new infections," she wrote.
There is no single category of women involved in small-house
affairs: they range from young unemployed women to older single
mothers and divorcees who may well be looking for companionship
and sex. But economic support - rent, food, car payments or
school fees - is often a key motivating factor, and sometimes
more than one man is required to cover all the bills.
"Sometimes it becomes necessary to have more than one person to
meet my needs, so that the responsibilities are shared. Once in a
while we use casual sex to generate the extra income," one woman
said in a focus group.
The women acknowledged the risk involved in not practicing safer
sex, "but emphasised the need to appear trustworthy ... 'If you
insist on condoms the men will leave because they will believe
that you are seeing other men. The more trustworthy you look, the
more you get'."
Anita Sanjala was a 21-year-old housemaid when her employer made
her pregnant; now aged 28, she is still his concubine. "He comes
over now and then to see how we are faring," Anita said of her
lover, who rents a two-roomed cottage in the upmarket Windsor
Park suburb in the city of Gweru, Midlands Province, for her and
Although she does not deny he may well be seeing other women, she
seemed unfazed by it. "So long as he provides me and my son
support while I enjoy the freedom of living apart from him and
his wife, I am not bothered much," she told IRIN/PlusNews.
Zimbabwe has managed to cut its HIV infection rate over the last
few years to 18 percent; small houses - and more particularly the
lack of condom use and gender inequality the relationships
represent - threaten those gains, with married women at
"Married women continue to face the high risk of HIV/AIDS
infection, because it is difficult for them to persuade their
partners to use condoms when they suspect them of having
extramarital affairs or relationships," said Caroline
Nyamayemombe, of the United Nations Population Fund Agency
Most women "will claim not to know", even if they suspect their
husbands are cheating, said Chingandu. "Very few families will
encourage the woman to take responsibility for her own life and
divorce. The fear of the taboo that goes along with women taking
the lead in getting a divorce supersedes even their fear of dying
One posting on an electronic forum in response to her paper was
scathing: "As a married woman myself, who is faithful to her
husband and who prays that the husband is also faithful, I just
think small houses need to be sued because of the risk they are
putting not only [on] themselves, but us, the main houses, and
the children we are getting out of all these unions," the writer
Chingandu said, "Gender programmes need to do more in empowering
all women to demand their right to safer sex, and to deal with
the consequences that might arise. Communities must be encouraged
to support their ... [members] who want to divorce or leave these