Like many young people growing up in Zimbabwe today, Linda Kuterera (not her real name) was forced to drop out of school because her mother could no longer afford the spiraling school fees.
Soon after she stopped going to school, Linda’s mother fell sick and had to be hospitalized.
“They told me to pay for my mother’s medication, and being the eldest in the family the responsibility fell on me. I hate what I am doing but I am forced to sleep with men so that I can raise money to pay for the hospital bills,” said Linda choking back tears.
Poverty has left many young girls and women with little choice but to sell their bodies in order to cope with the economic struggles and food shortages.
According to the Zimbabwe 2008 National Youth Shadow report, girls as young as 12 are being forced to sell their bodies to raise money for sustenance or just to get a day’s meals. Unfortunately, young Zimbabweans are often likely to be left out of HIV and AIDS programmes, adds report.
The report, which seeks to measure the country’s progress on the 2001 UNGASS Declaration on HIV and AIDS states that young people continue to be overlooked in the implementation of programmes.
In many youth programmes in Zimbabwe, there is no meaningful involvement of young people with programmes not based on information that has been well researched.
“While young people are mentioned in numerous policies, the Zimbabwe government must mainstream youth issues and youth participation into the work of ministries and agencies taking part in the national AIDS response,” states the report.
But, unfortunately, Zimbabwe lacks adequate resources to implement programmes that can fully address the needs of young people.
“Young people bear a disproportionate burden of the country’s political and economic woes, and are more likely to be unemployed, involved in political violence including sexual violence, and tend to increase their risk-taking behaviours in periods of uncertainty and deprivation,” says the report.
In addition, despite the fact that HIV and AIDS information is considered to be widely available in Zimbabwe, among young people, only 43,7 percent of women and 45,6 percent of young men aged 15-24 are considered to have comprehensive knowledge.
To make matters worse, there is a dearth of sex education programmes for both school and out-of-school youth. The report recommends that Ministry of Education must incorporate comprehensive and evidence-based sex education material into standardized curricula and tests.
“We have not been focusing our work on young people that much, we know that young people have unique needs but our resources are limited and we absolutely have to prioritize,” said Kuda Mazere, and officer with a community based NGO working in poor and marginalized communities in Zimbabwe.
Having said, there is a greater need for the involvement of young people in programmes in order for Zimbabwe to achieve its universal access to care, treatment and support goals.
In Zimbabwe, the 15-24 group is key to achieving an HIV prevalence rate which is less than 15 percent yet young people are at particular risk of HIV infection.