What’s driving young people to have transactional sex in Malawi’s slums

Poverty is rife in Malawi, with more than 90% living on less than US$2 a day. One of the reasons young urban Malawians give for engaging in transactional sex is to get food. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Transactional sex, or the exchange of sex for money or other material goods, is one of the drivers behind the high risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies among young women living in urban slums of Malawi.

The drivers that push young men and women to engage in transactional sex have been widely studied. The findings suggest that as a result of the economic stress associated with earning low wages and widespread youth unemployment, young women are inclined to use sex to generate income for their basic needs.

Although these studies provide useful insights on transactional sex, relatively little is known about transactional sex from the perspective of young women and men living in urban slums.

Our study is one of the first to look at how young men and young women understand the structural factors that promote transactional sex among their peers. It explored how material deprivation and a desire for fashionable goods may lead to decisions to engage in transactional sex.

Malawi’s HIV landscape

Malawi is a low-income country, with 91% of its 16 million people living on less than US$2 per day. According to the most recent statistics, HIV prevalence peaked in 1999 at 16.4% and declined steadily to 10.6% in 2010. HIV prevalence was higher among females. Although there has not been any national representative survey since 2010 to estimate HIV prevalence, last year it was estimated that 1.1 million Malawians are living with HIV.

The national figure masks significant rural-urban differences. Urban prevalence, at 17.4%, is nearly double that of rural areas, which sits at 9%. One-fifth of the country’s population is classified as urban.

Urbanisation in Malawi is linked to concentrations of poverty – about 65% of the urban population live in urban slums. Young people living in these slums are considered an at-risk population for STIs, including HIV, and unintended pregnancy.

The study used data from five focus group discussions and 12 in-depth interviews undertaken with a total of 60 young men and young women between the ages of 18 and 23 years living in two urban slums of Blantyre, the country’s capital. The study was conducted over a six month period from December 2012 to May 2013.

Reasons for engaging in transactional sex

The young people’s narratives suggested that acute economic pressure, lack of housing, and food insecurity combined with a desire for fashion influenced their decisions to engage in transactional sex.

Describing how the lack of housing may influence young women to engage in transactional sex, a 22-year old young woman whom we will call Nasiyato said:

When a girl lacks housing and she wants to find a place to sleep, or she does not have rent, she is mostly found in a bar as she does not have a place to live. She will have sex with a guy [in order to have a roof over her head for the night] and then does the same thing the next day.

As narrated by Naje (not her real name), lack of housing was also perceived to motivate young men’s decisions to engage in transactional sex with older women.

Young men here sometimes sleep with older women, just because they want to stay [and sleep] at a decent place. Several young men get STIs in the process.

Food insecurity was another reason given for engaging in transactional sex. It gave them a “visa” for eating on that particular day.

Nagama, a 19-year-old mother of two children, explained that the need to alleviate her family’s health needs routinely resulted in her engaging in transactional sex.

It usually happens when my child is very sick and I have no means to go to (a private) clinic and there is no money. Something tells me: Why am I rejecting the men? After all my child will be better … When my mother or my child is sick you ask him to help. Just know that you will have sex. Otherwise, next time he will refuse to help you. And it goes on.

Although material deprivation was cited as an important reason for young people to engage in transactional sex, the young men and women also spoke of sex as a means to meet their aspirations and desires for fashionable goods.

Selina, a 20-year-old female who was unmarried said “everything was fashion nowadays”.

When I get a skin (skinny) jean, others want to have theirs as well and will accept any man for sex, be [he] older, to get money for a skin jean.

Young men also reported that they exploited young women’s desire for fashionable goods to lure them into having sex.

The implications

Our research demonstrates that material deprivation and consumerism may be important factors in the types of sexual relationships that young people have.

These findings suggest that a new generation of structural interventions addressing the unique needs of vulnerable groups of young people, particularly those in urban slums, should be considered to reduce sexual and reproductive health risks.