Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marital Aspirations, Sexual Behaviors, and HIV/AIDS in Rural Malawi

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marital Aspirations, Sexual Behaviors, and HIV/AIDS in Rural Malawi

Article excerpt

We explore how marital aspirations are related to the sexual behaviors of adolescents and young adults in Malawi, where HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults exceeds 10%. We also consider whether the specter of AIDS is shaping ideals about marriage. By combining survey data (N = 1,087) and in-depth interviews (N = 133) with young Malawians from the Malawi Diffusion and Ideational Change Project, we show that looking for and finding a suitable spouse are linked to sexual behaviors and, thus, HIV risks. Moreover, concerns about contracting HIV are closely tied to the ideal characteristics of a future spouse. Our findings draw long-overdue attention to the importance of marital aspirations in understanding adolescent sexual behaviors and risks in the era of AIDS.

Key Words: HIV/AIDS, marital aspirations, sexual behaviors, sub-Saharan Africa.

Around the globe, adolescence through early adulthood is a period of rapid change. Adolescents and young adults typically undergo several key transitions, including completing schooling, finding jobs, getting married, and initiating childbearing (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2005). When adolescents and youths in sub-Saharan Africa make these transitions, however, they face the additional challenge of doing so while endeavoring to avoid contracting HIV. This is particularly true in countries like Malawi, where HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults exceeds 10% (UNAIDS, 2008). Discovering HIV-free pathways to adulthood is of paramount importance not only to policymakers and health professionals but also to adolescents themselves. Yet few researchers have sought to understand how these transitions may shape HIV risks over the life course.

Life Course Theory and Adolescent Sexual Behaviors

In this paper, we draw on the developmental life course perspective to explore how adolescent sexual behaviors in sub-Saharan Africa may be related to a pivotal life transition, marriage. Developmental life course theory as articulated by Elder (1994, 1998) offers a useful framework to explore how adolescents chart their life trajectories and how their current behaviors relate to both past experiences and future ambitions. Two of the theory's four principles are especially germane to our research. First, developmental life course theory focuses on the role of human agency, meaning that "individuals construct their own life course through the choices and actions they take within the opportunities and constraints of history and social circumstances" (Elder, 1998, p. 4). Second, the theory emphasizes the importance of path dependence, that is, the cumulative influence of historical time, place, and events in shaping the life course of individuals.

Turning first to the principle of human agency, we address its relevance to marital outcomes. Although subject to considerable external constraints, individuals' marital aspirations, which reflect their hopes and desires with respect to when they will and whom they want to marry, and their marital expectations, which indicate what they think is most likely to occur, are potentially important. Developmental life course theory suggests that adolescents adjust their current behaviors, particularly their sexual behaviors, in ways that would help achieve these aspirations and expectations. Several studies that either explicitly or implicitly invoke life course theory have shown that marital aspirations are important, even central, in many adolescent sexual relationships in North America (Crissey, 2005; Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2007; Thornton, 1990). Two specific relationships have been found. First, the age at which adolescents want or expect to marry is related to their current types of relationships. One study, for example, found that teens who expected to marry before the age of 25 were more likely to be involved in serious - often sexual - relationships (Crissey). Second, wishing to marry a particular partner is correlated with sexual behaviors within that partnership. …

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