In Zambia Young People Have Sex to “Prove a Point” or Make Money

Young men and women in Zambia are under pressure to engage in multiple sexual relationships due to prevailing societal attitudes about masculinity and for economic benefits, respectively, according to a study recently published in the African Journal of AIDS Research.

 

The study states that young men are likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviour because that is the way men are expected to behave, with the majority believing that their identity is defined by their sexual prowess.

 

On the other hand, young women have multiple sexual partners as a way to escape poverty, which affects approximately 68 percent of the population.

 

“Among young women in the study, the practice of multiple sexual partnerships seemed fairly widespread and it typically involved powerful socio-economic ties, making it difficult for individuals to change their own behaviour,” said the study.

 

Young people’s sexual attitudes and behaviours comes against a backdrop of high rates of HIV and AIDS which have shortened life expectancy in the country.

 

According to UNAIDS, an estimated 16,5 percent (1,200,000) of people aged 15-49 in Zambia are living with HIV, of which 57 percent are women with the main mode of HIV transmission being heterosexual intercourse.

 

To make matters worse, UNAIDS reports that in Zambia there is also pressure on women to demonstrate their fertility, so they do not use condoms and a cultural trend for inter-generational relationships also puts girls at risk.

 

Statistics show that HIV prevalence peaks in men between the ages of 29 and 34; in women it is 15 and 24.Among young people ages 15-24, the estimated number of young women living with HIV in Zambia is more than twice that of young men.

 

In Zambia, like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, epidemiological evidence shows that multiple sexual partnerships are contributing considerably to HIV transmission.

 

In light of this, there is need for increased emphasis on fidelity and partner reduction in the prevention of HIV transmission. However, a combination of cultural and economic factors push young people into potentially risky sexual engagement with multiple partners.

 

According to the study, although young people were aware of the risk associated with having multiple sexual partnerships, they described several barriers to translating safer-sex knowledge into health-promoting safer-sex behaviours.

 

“For many young men, having many partners was a way of demonstrating their virility and manliness,” states the study titled “Reasons for multiple sexual partnerships: perspectives of young people in Zambia”.

 

“It was seen as more acceptable for men than women to have multiple sexual partners.”

 

The study adds that a traditional culture that associates masculinity with having multiple sexual partners does exist among youth in Zambia.

 

“When respondents spoke about young men having multiple sexual partnerships in order to “prove a point,” it is evident that in essence the point they were trying to “prove” was that they could live up to the cultural expectations of masculinity in Zambia,” says the report.

 

Notions of masculinity have long been singled out as a stumbling block to safe sexual practices between men and women.

 

The study recommends that there is a need to challenge traditional notions of masculinity which puts both men and women at risk of exposure to HIV. Respondents also cited polygamy, which is widely practiced in some parts of Zambia, as a factor which influences multiple sexual relationships for young people socialized in a polygamous environment.

 

Effective responses to HIV and AIDS in Zambia, like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, need to continuously figure out how to tackle often-sensitive cultural issues that facilitate HIV transmission.

 

Among young men, existent concepts of masculinity need to be redefined so that the definition of manhood is not simply confined to sexual prowess or number or sexual encounters.

 

The study further recommends that young women need to be offered more opportunities to escape poverty because this will reduce the need to resort to multiple partners as a means of survival.

 

“While the majority of the young people were well aware that having multiple sexual partnerships increased their chance of contracting HIV, it is vital that youth be made aware of the sexual networks that are created as a result of this multiple partnering – and how the chance of becoming infected can depend on one’s position within the networks,” states the study.

 

Overall, sex education can play a key role in encouraging young people to either delay having sex or practice safer sex.

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Zambia’s Voiceless Children

Lusaka, Zambia – Just a stone’s throw away from the posh Manda Hill Shopping Mall in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, little kids mill around traffic lights sniffing glue and pestering motorists and pedestrians alike for money, food and whatever else they can scrounge.

Many of the kids, dressed in filthy rags, are regarded as a menace to society due to their antisocial behavior. Near the traffic lights a big poster warns the public not to give money or food to the children, euphemistically referred to as “street kids.”

According to the poster, giving money or food only causes the children to remain on the street. Put in other words, the social menace that many of the nouveau rich in this leafy and suburban area fear will continue to grow.

Many of the so-called street kids are part of a generation of children in Zambia that is growing up without parental care, support or guidance. The children are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and disease.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that there are approximately 1,250,000 orphans in Zambia — that is, one in every four Zambian children — with about 50 percent under nine years of age.

Orphans are defined as children who have lost one or both parents. The extended family network, a traditional safety net for orphaned children, is breaking apart due to the enormity of the HIV crisis throughout the country.

Additionally, the huge number of orphaned children is overwhelming national health, social welfare and education systems in Zambia, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Most of the children face a bleak future, without parents to care for them and with little, if any, assistance offered by the government.

The children are often traumatized by the death of parents, stigmatized through association with HIV and often thrown into desperate poverty by the loss of breadwinners. They live under enormous pressure and suffer depression and other psychological problems.

Young girls, in particular, are the first to be denied educational opportunities in favor of boys and are forced into early marriages with older men, which put them at higher risk of HIV infection.

Children, both girls and boys, turn to the streets in search of a better life but the reality that confronts them can only be described as grim. Street life creates extreme vulnerability to violence, exploitative and hazardous labor, sex-work and trafficking.

In fact, internal trafficking of children has become rampant in Zambia. Sadly, there is little to no awareness of this social malaise.

Nothing short of a Herculean effort is required to help the growing legion of orphans in Zambia to lead normal lives. A holistic approach that includes provisions for nutrition, health and cognitive development, and educational and psychosocial support is required to effectively respond to the orphan crisis in the country.

Addressing these basic needs at an early age would give orphaned children a healthy start and a more-hopeful future.

Strengthening family systems and community care mechanisms is fundamental to this holistic approach because putting children into institutional homes can have a devastating effect on their self-worth and identity.

Furthermore, there needs to be a concerted effort to keep children in school because school is one recognized shelter that can help the children to discover their own potential.

The government must protect the children of Zambia with improved institutional, legal and social conditions, hopefully bringing an end the need to “protect” motorists from “street kids” at traffic lights.