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.