Tips for managing domestic arguments and ensuring a happy sex life are just some of the bits of wisdom passed on at Tanzanian bridal showers. Known as "kitchen parties", no subject is taboo as the guests prepare brides-to-be for life as a wife.
But gender activists say the parties perpetuate unequal gender roles by teaching women to be submissive to men in all respects, including sexually, putting them at a greater risk of contracting HIV from their husbands.
Scores of elegantly attired female guests attended a recent kitchen party for a 25-year-old banker in Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, where the only men were the cameramen and disc-jockey.
Gifts, mainly domestic utensils and kitchen equipment, were piled on an elevated platform where the bride-to-be patiently awaited her lesson. A procession of relatives and friends, each with years of marriage experience, took their turns on the microphone.
"If he comes home late, ask the house-girl [domestic worker] to open the door to show him you're upset," one elder suggested. "You are the one to wash the bed sheets clean and white," another guest reminded her.
"The training at kitchen parties is geared toward making the bride so subservient, so docile and quiet. It gives women all the responsibility to make the marriage work," said Charles Kayoka, of the Association of Journalists against AIDS in Tanzania, a group advocating greater male involvement in HIV prevention. "The intention is not bad – to make the marriage home peaceful and harmonious - but the outcome can be dangerous."
Salama Jumanne, 37, a Tanzanian mother living with HIV, commented: "At kitchen parties you are able to learn about your husband's expectations, which may help to make the marriage survive for a short period of time. But, really, what you are learning is how to think of your husband's needs above yours."
Studies have shown that marriage is no protection against HIV infection for women and girls: recent trends in neighbouring countries like Uganda suggest that married couples are actually at higher risk of HIV than unmarried men and women.
Women rarely control the timing and frequency of sexual intercourse in marriage; many African women experience sexual violence and coercion. The inability to negotiate safer sex, especially in a society where concurrent partnerships are common, places married women at greater risk of contracting HIV.
|At kitchen parties you are able to learn about your husband's expectations ... but really what you are learning is how to think of your husband's needs above yours|
Geoffrey Chambua, of the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme in Dar es Salaam, said the frank sexual discussions at the pre-wedding parties were wasted if they did not include vital messages about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
"On one hand, they are fun social gatherings that can foster a sense of cultural identity and tradition, while gift-giving helps the new couple start to build a home together," he said. "On the other side, it is a source of exposing a woman to be a victim of violence to her husband by teaching her to be extremely submissive."
A master of ceremonies (MC) is usually hired by the family to discuss delicate matters such as sex at the kitchen party, but the social stigma associated with HIV and the misconceptions about it often prevent the subject from being discussed.
"I've been MC at hundreds of kitchen parties since 1990. I started talking about AIDS at them eight years ago," Gladys Chiduo, better known as MC Zimpopo, told IRIN/PlusNews. "To this day, not everyone in my profession does it ... It's not always easy to get my message across."
Prisca Rwezahura-Holmes, marketing director of Tanzania Marketing and Communication (T-MARC), a social marketing company, said change might be slow but it was happening.
"Kitchen parties are candid; it's a rare chance to reach out and share other women's marital experience. They originally had ... [the approach], 'please your man sexually and do what's necessary to keep him in the house', but I think that's changing."
T-MARC has organised about 100 kitchen parties across Tanzania to promote the "Lady Pepeta" female condom, one of its products. Organisers have used the opportunity to broaden the conversation to include safe sex and health, said Rwezahura-Holmes.
Some NGOs have started distributing traditional wraps, called khangas, at kitchen parties, printed with HIV and reproductive health messages to encourage discussion on these topics.
"Kitchen parties are becoming more sophisticated and willing to push the sexual agenda," Rwezahura-Holmes said. In Tanzania's largely conservative society, matters of sex and relationships are difficult to discuss at home, whereas at kitchen parties there are no attempts to censor the conversation for sexual explicitness.
An estimated 6.2 percent of 40 million Tanzanians are living with HIV; more than half of them women, according to the Tanzania Commission for AIDS. HIV prevalence among married women aged 15 to 49 is 8.1 percent.