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A right for men, a demand for women? Sexism & pleasure in Zambia

by Antón Castellanos Usigli, September 13, 2015

Nana Zulu is originally from Lusaka, Zambia. She started working in sexual and reproductive health and rights when she was studying college. Nowadays, she works as a Youth Advisor in IPAS Zambia, overseeing the youth programs unit.

Nana recognizes that in Zambia is difficult to talk about sex, particularly for women: “People don’t talk about exploring themselves sexually because it is culturally seen as deviating from the norm. For the men it’s easier, they would talk about it with their peers. However, with women it’s about the needs of their partners. In our culture, we are brought to believe that sexual pleasure within a relationship or marriage is a demand for women, and the objective is to pleasure the male partner.”

Nana has not only worked with heterosexual youths in Zambia, but also with young people who have different sexual orientations and gender identities: “LGBTQ youth are more open when it comes to discussing sexual pleasure and their sexual needs. They are more open to assertively communicate with their partners and to explore”.

When a young woman asks Nana what an orgasm feels like, she makes them reflect on the reason to have sexual relations: “I ask them back why are they having sex for, because it’s clearly not pleasurable for them”. Nana explained that Zambian culture puts heterosexual sex and reproduction in the center. The belief is that men should initiate sex: “When we have traditional marriage ceremonies, the female is prepared. They explain to her that whenever the man wants to have sex, she should be able to provide it. The woman is taught to thank the man for the sex he provides. As long as the man is satisfied, the woman should be content.”


Nana Zulu providing sex education in Zambia. Photo courtesy of IPAS Zambia.

Sex education provided in schools doesn’t counteract this, as the information is limited to basic aspects of HIV prevention and focused mostly on abstinence, condoms and being faithful. Throughout her job, Nana works to improve to capacity of different “youth corners” in over 50 health clinics across Zambia. In these “youth corners”, peer educators provide the sex education that is not provided to young people in schools, and they link them to proper sexual and reproductive health services: “Peer educators are very open to talk about these issues. They realize that if they don’t provide sex education, young people wouldn’t receive it. Youth corners act as an entry point for young people in the health facilities. Young people go first to the youth space and then directly to they services they want.”

Peer educators use a wide range of methods to talk about sexuality and sexual pleasure with young people at the youth corners: “Blended learning is most effective to talk about sexual pleasure. Programs often take for granted that young people are the same, but they are not a homogenous community. They have different literacy levels and different experiences. So there is no right or single way to talk about the topic, you have to do it based the type of community.”

Examples of teaching techniques used by peer educators include movie clips to ignite discussions and using open books in which young people can anonymously write down questions about particular topics, which are answered by the peer educators. The common denominator is that peer educators work to preserve a safe space for young people to openly talk about sex: “You need to soften the space so that it feels comfortable. The educators provide privacy, confidentiality and create a safe space”.

In the end of our discussion, Nana pointed out that sexual ignorance tends to be so pervasive that some people do not even understand their sexual anatomy: “Some people are shown the diagram of female genitalia and they are not sure where the vagina is”.

Sexual ignorance is clearly linked with the religious views that dominate Zambian society: “Zambia is a Christian nation and that has been the basis to control information about sex. If you are young person and non-married, they tell you should wait until you are married. Heterosexual sex is the only thing allowed. That’s the reinforced message for young people.”