Hope rests with young teens

High HIV infection rates among 15-24-year-old South Africans are ‘€œfuelling the flames’€ of the AIDS epidemic.   By the age of 22, one in four young women have HIV.

Hope rests with younger teenagers, the bulk of whom are still HIV negative.

These are the findings of a new study by the University of the Witwatersrand’€™s Reproductive Health Research Unit (RHRU) on HIV and the sexual behaviour of South African youth released today (April 7).

The survey, commissioned by loveLife, is the largest national survey of this nature and involved a national representative sample of 11 904 young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

Responding to the findings, Dr David Harrison, CEO of loveLife, said although one in 10 youths aged between 15 and 24 was HIV positive, the findings show that 96 percent of 15 year olds are HIV negative.

‘€œIf we can enable those young people to stay that way, we can turn off the oxygen tap constantly fuelling the flames of the epidemic,’€ Harrison said.

Harrison said that ensuring that teenagers remained HIV negative could only be achieved if young people grew up thinking differently. Youth needed to be equipped to be able to resist any form of pressure he added.

But changing behaviour would be almost impossible if young people, especially women, continued living in a society where coercion prevailed and gender rights were not respected.

‘€œThe burden is on parents and the older generation to make the changes ‘€“ and not the youth alone,’€ said Harrison.

The survey uncovered an alarming trend; that coercion is the single biggest driver of the age at which young people first have sex. Almost one third of sexually experienced women (31%) surveyed reported that they did not want to have their first sexual encounter.

The survey showed that young women usually had sex with men who were on average four years older, making it difficult to refuse unwanted sex or negotiate condom use.

Audrey Pettifor, author of the study and programme director of adolescent health at the RHRU said changing behaviour was ‘€œnot quick and not a magic bullet’€ and called for community-based HIV prevention campaigns that address the gender imbalances that place young women at greater risk.

Harrison added that an AIDS-free future depended on a new generation of young South Africans who were able to challenge the current mindset that appears to condone the violation of the sexual rights of women.

Harrison challenged parents and older people to ask, ‘€œWhat is it about us that is driving these norms in young people?’€

The good news is that young people in the survey were optimistic about their futures with 94 percent saying they knew what they wanted out of life and 69 percent reporting that they felt in control of their lives.

The full survey can be found here.

E-mail Kanya Ndaki

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