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  • Living life on the edge:Examining space and sexualities within a township high school in greater Durban, in the context of the HIV epidemic
  • Alex A Kent (bio)


Throughout this article I demonstrate and build on the notion that compulsory heterosexuality and fixed gender roles are 'dangerous' especially in the context of the HIV epidemic (Morrell et al 2001). In order to challenge these dangerous gender performances it is necessary to have a full understanding of these discourses and where and how they are manifested and regulated.

Schools are complex spaces in which identities and sexualities are taught, performed and negotiated (Epstein and Johnson 1998). Performances arise from the expressive power of the body whilst being grounded in the norms of social process such as compulsory heterosexuality (Butler 1990). Space can, therefore, be a useful analytical tool through which to examine gendered performances (Paechter et al 2001).

This article will demonstrate the ubiquitous disposition of gendered performances on three levels. It will map the visible informal use of school space such as where and how males and females spend their break time. It will examine how gender differences are policed within the school walls, for example management structures. It will also discuss how performances are shaped by gender identities when students perform at a beauty pageant. However, before taking this spatial examination I will briefly describe the context of the research. [End Page 59]

Engendering HIV

The HIV epidemic in South Africa is localised, racialised, affects many young people and is gendered. The epidemic has had a greater impact on women in South Africa; it was estimated that 2.65 million women and 2.09 million men were living with HIV in South Africa in 2002 (AVERT 2002). The underlying cause for this gender disparity is that females are both physiologically and socially more susceptible to HIV infection than males.

The gender inequalities of every day life in South Africa have prevented many women from taking control of their sex lives. Socio-cultural expectations prescribe female behaviour, such as being in a heterosexual relationship by the age of 20, married by 25, and allowing males to have polygamous relationships. Women have less access to money, education and power, and are forced to use sex as a bargaining tool, reducing their power to insist on the use of a condom (Mthembu 2001).

Another social norm is sexual violence. In 1999 alone 51,249 rapes were reported to the South African Police Service, which is likely to be merely the tip of the iceberg of actual rapes (Vetten 2001:31). Not only does rape put women at high risk of HIV infection but the nature and regularity of the event serves to reinforce male dominance and further subordinate and disempower women.

In an attempt to address the interrelated gender divisions and the HIV epidemic, interventions have often targeted women. However, this has been problematic when they have focused on the effect rather than the cause (Bujra 2000). This has had a fatal result in fuelling the misogynist reaction which blames women for HIV (Maharaj 2000). In 1999 Gugu Dlamini spoke openly about her HIV positive status at a World AIDS Day event in KwaMashu. Two weeks later, on December 12, she was stoned to death by members of her community.

In order for interventions to address the effect of HIV, there needs to be a full understanding of existing gender and sexuality performances. I further develop this understanding by focusing on a space upon which many hopes are pinned for HIV education interventions: a school. Lillian Ngoyi School is a co-educational school located in a Greater Durban township.

Situating the research

This spatial outlook was inspired by Epstein et al (2001) and Karlsson (2002a and 2002b), who have used space to examine social process within schools. Both have illuminated school performances beyond that of the [End Page 60] much researched formal pedagogy (classrooms and lessons) by looking at informal times (breaks), and informal spaces outside classrooms. By using 'space' in South Africa, Karlsson has demonstrated that although post-apartheid changes have affected formal schooling, informal spaces have retained inequalities (2002a and 2002b).

The gendered and sex expectations that students and...


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