Renegotiating intimate relationships with men: how HIV shapes attitudes and experiences of marriage for South African women living with HIV: ‘Now in my life, everything I do, looking at my health’

Authors Diane Cooper, Elena Moore, Joanne E Mantell

ISSN: 1996-2088
Affiliations: Associate Professor, Women’s Health Research Unit, School of Public Health and Family Medicine; Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town; Senior Research Fellow, Centre of Social Science Research; Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry, HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies, New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University, New York
Source: Acta Juridica, 2013, p. 218 – 238


This paper explores marriage attitudes and practices among Xhosa-speaking women living with HIV (WLHIV) in Cape Town, South Africa. It reports on a study that assessed the fertility intentions of a cohort of people living with HIV, aimed at informing an HIV care intervention. It draws on qualitative data generated from 30 successive interviews with WHLIV in wave 1, 23 interviews in wave 2 and 20 follow-up interviews in wave 3. Gender inequality, marriage and HIV are strongly intertwined. Broader layers of South Africa’s history, politics and socio-economic and cultural contexts have consequences for the fluidity in intimate relations, marriage and motherhood for WLHIV. Key and conflicting themes emerge that impact on marriage and motherhood. Firstly, marriage is the ‘last on a list of priorities’ for WLHIV, who wish to further their children’s education, to work, to earn money, and to achieve this rapidly because of their HIV-positive status. We demonstrate that the pressure women face in marriage to bear children creates a different attitude to and experience of marriage for WLHIV. Some WLHIV wish to avoid marriage due to its accompanying pressure to have children. Other WLHIV experience difficulties securing intimacy. WLHIV may find it easier to seek partners who are also living with HIV.Apartner living with HIV is perceived as sharing similar fertility goals. In this study, HIV accentuates existing issues and highlights new ones for WLHIV negotiating intimacy. The findings contribute to the existing knowledge base regarding the fluidity of marriage and fertility intentions within the dynamic context of living with HIV. These are likely to have broader relevance in currently rapidly urbanising and economically developing countries with high HIV prevalence in southern Africa.