Willingly courting danger or not? Living with AIDS # 310

KHOPOTSO: An ongoing study into teenage pregnancies in South Africa shows that young people are likely to engage in sexual activity that could result in early parenthood or in contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. With a growing number of young people becoming sexually active at a tender age, at the heart of the matter is their approach to the use of condoms.


ELIZABETH TAOLE: With some cases, it’€™s non-use’€¦ In some cases, it’€™s irregular use.


KHOPOTSO: Elizabeth Taole, a researcher with Birth to Twenty, a special Wits University initiative tracking the lives of young people born in 1990. Dubbed Mandela’€™s Children, the participants are now 16 years old and since three years ago when they turned 13, the study has focused on their sexual behaviour, measuring the incidence of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. This Johannesburg youth study has over 2 000 boys and girls participating.


ELIZABETH TAOLE: They know that they might be pregnant. They know that they might get STIs or HIV’€¦ because we do ask them questions in the questionnaire: Whether they did use condoms, and did they know that if they didn’€™t, that this might happen to them? And they acknowledge that they do know.                                  


KHOPOTSO: The study records that this year alone 46 of the girls have given birth and two are currently pregnant. This is out of a total of 1 106 girls. Two of the boys are to become fathers. This begs the question: If young people have easy access to information about the dangers of unprotected sex, are they then simply ignoring the advice given or do they not understand it? Psychologist Malose Langa lectures at Wits University’€™s School of Human and Community Development.


MALOSE LANGA: The main problem is on how some of the messages are being sent’€¦ Those messages don’€™t impact on behaviour change. It’€™s only like, ‘€˜if you do this, these are the consequences’€™. For me’€¦ it is more complicated than just two young people having sex. We need to look at why do young people at that very young age feel that urge to experiment sexually.          


KHOPOTSO: Langa says the messages available to the youth are lacking in substance.


MALOSE LANGA: The AIDS messages don’€™t touch on issues around self-esteem, self-confidence, identity, self-concept’€¦ We talk about peer pressure. Why are other kids more susceptible to peer pressure, as compared to others? Those are issues that we need to start asking ourselves.


KHOPOTSO: In Taole’€™s study, peer pressure largely affected decisions pertaining to sex.


ELIZABETH TAOLE: For most of them it’€™s a matter of peer pressure: Every one of my friends has a boyfriend. Every one of my friends does this. So, it automatically becomes part of what I’€™m going to do in this relationship. And whether people in the other relationship negotiate whether they use condoms or not, you don’€™t know that. So whatever comes your way, you just feel that this is what it entails, therefore, ‘€˜I’€™m going to have to follow’€™.


KHOPOTSO: To fix this, there needs to be a new approach to addressing the youth. According to Langa, it must equip each young person with tools to make sense of the issues and how they can impact their own lives.    


MALOSE LANGA: If then you go to them and use scare tactics: ‘€˜Don’€™t do this. If you do this, these are the consequences’€™, they would just laugh you off. But if then you approach them in a group, individually have individual meetings with them and also bring them together ‘€“ and in that it’€™s not to tell them that ‘€˜this is wrong, this is right’€™. It’€™s like, ‘€˜okay, let’€™s get to know who we are’€™. In the process, some will start exploring the whole issue around identity achievement, identity development, identity formation. And in that it builds the self-esteem. It’€™s not like ‘€˜I need to follow what my friends are telling me to do’€™. It’€™s not like ‘€˜if I don’€™t do this, I’€™ll feel excluded in the social circle’€™.


KHOPOTSO: His counterpart at Birth to Twenty, recommends that parents, adults and health care workers need to help young people, particularly teenage girls, by not taking a judgemental stance. This would go a long way to prevent such occurrences as teenage parenthood, she says.          


ELIZABETH TAOLE: I’€™m finding that it’€™s very difficult for girls to negotiate whether they would like the use of condoms or not. If they’€™re having problems and they go to clinics, we as adults shouldn’€™t look at them in a funny way, but try and help them and, maybe, teach them skills of how to negotiate better in terms of being able to negotiate with their partners. And also, encourage them to use contraception before their first pregnancy or when they are sexually active.


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