Female students bear the brunt of HIV infection Living with AIDS # 425

The Higher Education HIV and AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) surveyed 21 universities in the country. Only two were not surveyed. The sample involved almost 24 000 students and various levels of staff in different provinces. Fort Hare University’€™s Professor Mvuyo Tom, released the results at a media conference, in Johannesburg.  

‘€œHIV prevalence is 3.4% for students and 1.5% for academics. Both these figures are substantially lower than average for the national population aged between 15 and 49 years. The average HIV prevalence among service workers is 9.9%, rising to 20% in KwaZulu-Natal as a region. Behaviour that puts students at risk of HIV infection is quite common and it occurs at all institutions. HIV prevalence amongst students increases sharply with age as they progress from their late teens to early 20s and even more so after the 25-year mark. Only 60% of sexually active students had used a condom the last time they had sex. Nineteen percent of male students had slept with more than one partner in the last month. About one out of 20 sexually active students had a partner more than 10 years older’€,  Professor Tom announced.  

Interestingly, both male and female students had a similar rate of being involved with people more than 10 years older than them. The rates are 6% and 7% respectively. HIV prevalence between the sexes varied sharply, however. Among females it was more than double that of males. It was 4.7% compared to 2.0%. But why?

‘€œStudents arriving at university with funding for their studies and, perhaps, for residence, but very little funding for food, no disposable income are really drawn to find relationships that can support their material needs. That must predispose them to high-risk sexual relationships or certainly sexual relationships with partners where they don’€™t have very much capacity to insist on the conditions of the relationship, to insist on condom use’€, said Dr Kevin Kelly of Rhodes University’€™s Centre for AIDS Development Research and Evaluation (CADRE), one of the principal investigators in the study.

‘€œWe could call it transactional sex, in the sense of women declaring that, ‘€˜yes, we do this.   We need to do this and it works for us’€™. So, we must not see them in all respects as being victims in this. Many young women, actually even some that have many of their material needs met, tend to have relationships with people that they know as risky. It’€™s a significant part of the campus culture in many of the universities’€, added Kelly.

Higher Education and Training Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, called on universities to address young women’€™s vulnerability to HIV infection.  

‘€œI urge you to adopt a zero tolerance to these issues and work actively towards eliminating with rigor conditions of inequality, negative gender stereotypes and activities that allow women to be exploited. Central to our approach is the ability to deal with eradicating poverty. We do recognize that poverty is the trigger for many diseases’€, Nzimande said.

Participation in the survey was voluntary and many students and staff were left out.

Overall, a 3.4% HIV prevalence amongst tertiary students and a 1.5% for academics is substantially lower than the national average of almost 17% among people aged between 15 and 49 years. HIV infection among service workers was relatively high, at almost 10%.

Even though the study shows that HIV infection is lower among higher education students, Minister Nzimande appealed for more awareness around HIV and AIDS in campuses.  

‘€œWe can provide as much skills for our young people, but if we do not integrate HIV and AIDS awareness, education and other programmes, all we will do will just simply be training young people for the grave, instead of the workplace’€, he said.    

While the study results show that HIV and AIDS do not pose a generalized threat to the country’€™s higher education system, institutions cannot afford to relax their efforts to prevent the spread of HIV, particularly amongst young women. Centres of higher learning also have the responsibility to offer care, support and treatment to students and staff living with HIV and AIDS.        

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