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The changing political economy of sex in South Africa: The significance of unemployment and inequalities to the scale of the AIDS pandemic


  • Hunter, Mark


Between 1990 and 2005, HIV prevalence rates in South Africa jumped from less than 1% to around 29%. Important scholarship has demonstrated how racialized structures entrenched by colonialism and apartheid set the scene for the rapid unfolding of the AIDS pandemic, like other causes of ill-health before it. Of particular relevance is the legacy of circular male-migration, an institution that for much of the 20th century helped to propel the transmission of sexually transmitted infections among black South Africans denied permanent urban residence. But while the deep-rooted antecedents of AIDS have been noted, less attention has been given to more recent changes in the political economy of sex, including those resulting from the post-apartheid government's adoption of broadly neo-liberal policies. As an unintentional consequence, male migration and apartheid can be seen as almost inevitably resulting in AIDS, a view that can disconnect the pandemic from contemporary social and economic debates. Combining ethnographic, historical, and demographic approaches, and focusing on sexuality in the late apartheid and early post-apartheid periods, this article outlines three interlinked dynamics critical to understanding the scale of the AIDS pandemic: (1) rising unemployment and social inequalities that leave some groups, especially poor women, extremely vulnerable; (2) greatly reduced marital rates and the subsequent increase of one person households; and (3) rising levels of women's migration, especially through circular movements between rural areas and informal settlements/urban areas. As a window into these changes, the article gives primary attention to the country's burgeoning informal settlements--spaces in which HIV rates are reported to be twice the national average--and to connections between poverty and money/sex exchanges.

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  • Hunter, Mark, 2007. "The changing political economy of sex in South Africa: The significance of unemployment and inequalities to the scale of the AIDS pandemic," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 64(3), pages 689-700, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:64:y:2007:i:3:p:689-700

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Packard, Randall M. & Epstein, Paul, 1991. "Epidemiologists, social scientists, and the structure of medical research on aids in Africa," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 33(7), pages 771-783, January.
    2. Daniela Casale, 2004. "What has the Feminisation of the Labour Market ‘Bought’ Women in South Africa? Trends in Labour Force Participation, Employment and Earnings, 1995-2001," Working Papers 04084, University of Cape Town, Development Policy Research Unit.
    3. Daniela Casale, 2004. "What has the Feminisation of the Labour Market ‘Bought’ Women in South Africa? Trends in Labour Force Participation, Employment and Earnings, 1995–2001," Journal of Interdisciplinary Economics, , vol. 15(3-4), pages 251-275, July.
    4. Dunkle, Kristin L. & Jewkes, Rachel K. & Brown, Heather C. & Gray, Glenda E. & McIntryre, James A. & Harlow, Siobán D., 2004. "Transactional sex among women in Soweto, South Africa: prevalence, risk factors and association with HIV infection," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 59(8), pages 1581-1592, October.
    5. Dorrit Posel & Daniela Casale, 2003. "What has been happening to Internal Labour Migration in South Africa, 1993-1999?," Working Papers 03074, University of Cape Town, Development Policy Research Unit.
    6. Standing, Hilary, 1992. "AIDS: Conceptual and methodological issues in researching sexual behaviour in sub-Saharan Africa," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 34(5), pages 475-483, March.
    7. Andersson, Neil & Marks, Shula, 1988. "Apartheid and health in the 1980s," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 27(7), pages 667-681, January.
    8. Dorrit Posel & Daniela Casale, 2003. "What Has Been Happening To Internal Labour Migration In South Africa, 1993-1999?," South African Journal of Economics, Economic Society of South Africa, vol. 71(3), pages 455-479, September.
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    Cited by:

    1. Lori Hunter & John Reid-Hresko & Thomas Dickinson, 2011. "Environmental Change, Risky Sexual Behavior, and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic: Linkages Through Livelihoods in Rural Haiti," Population Research and Policy Review, Springer;Southern Demographic Association (SDA), vol. 30(5), pages 729-750, October.
    2. Michelle Poulin & Adamson S. Muula, 2011. "An inquiry into the uneven distribution of women’s HIV infection in rural Malawi," Demographic Research, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany, vol. 25(28), pages 869-902, December.
    3. Needle, Richard & Kroeger, Karen & Belani, Hrishikesh & Achrekar, Angeli & Parry, Charles D. & Dewing, Sarah, 2008. "Sex, drugs, and HIV: Rapid assessment of HIV risk behaviors among street-based drug using sex workers in Durban, South Africa," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 67(9), pages 1447-1455, November.
    4. Camlin, Carol S. & Kwena, Zachary A. & Dworkin, Shari L. & Cohen, Craig R. & Bukusi, Elizabeth A., 2014. "“She mixes her business”: HIV transmission and acquisition risks among female migrants in western Kenya," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 102(C), pages 146-156.
    5. Sangeetha Madhavan & Linda Richter & Shane Norris & Victoria Hosegood, 2014. "Fathers’ Financial Support of Children in a Low Income Community in South Africa," Journal of Family and Economic Issues, Springer, vol. 35(4), pages 452-463, December.
    6. Stoebenau, Kirsten & Heise, Lori & Wamoyi, Joyce & Bobrova, Natalia, 2016. "Revisiting the understanding of “transactional sex” in sub-Saharan Africa: A review and synthesis of the literature," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 168(C), pages 186-197.
    7. Dieter von Fintel & Eldridge Moses, 2017. "Migration and gender in South Africa: following bright lights and the fortunes of others?," Working Papers 09/2017, Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics, revised 2018.
    8. Rohini Somanathan, 2016. "Group Inequality in Democracies: Lessons from Cross-national Experiences," Working papers 260, Centre for Development Economics, Delhi School of Economics.
    9. Bhana, Deevia, 2009. ""AIDS is rape!" gender and sexuality in children's responses to HIV and AIDS," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 69(4), pages 596-603, August.


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