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HIV and AIDS - Shutting the ‘Window of Hope’. Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Douglas Tigere, Zimbabwe Mar 17, 2006
Child & Youth Rights , Health   Opinions
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Young people have long been viewed as the ‘window of hope’ for changing the course of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. But without substance in the form of youth friendly education and information on sexual and reproductive health, this vision will remain a far cry. HIV and AIDS is taking an enormous toll on the youth of Southern Africa. The most pointed question is should we stand aloof and watch, as our future is decimated by the pandemic?

According to UNAIDS, more than five young people are infected with HIV every minute; that translates to over 7000 each day and more than 2.6 million each year. Half of the more than 3- million new cases of HIV infection in Southern Africa in 2003 occurred amongst those aged between 15 and 24. It is disheartening to note that young people and particularly, young African women, remain at the centre of the pandemic; but still little is being done to diminish this problem.

Young people are more vulnerable to HIV infection because of behavioural, physiological and socio-cultural factors. Many young people naturally start to explore and take risks in numerous aspects of their lives, and this includes experimenting with sexual relationships. Those who have already had sex may start to change partners and try out different risky behaviours, thus exposing themselves to HIV infection. It is at this stage that interventions to alter instinctive behaviours are most appropriate, But and yet, for an array of reasons deeply rooted in societal stereotypes, youths are not being given the information they need to make healthy decisions and develop the skills that will protect them from HIV infection.

In most African countries, young people are denied access to the resources they need to protect themselves against infection, because it is culturally unacceptable for adults to discuss sexual issues with young people. Most people fear that educating youths about sexuality will have the effect of increasing their sexual activity. It is a popular belief in most cultures that young people should be kept innocent about sexual matters because they are not yet able to make reasonable decisions about their future until they are older.

Moreover, the vulnerability of young people to HIV and AIDS is also enhanced by promoting differential behaviours between boys and girls. This is perpetuaed by the notion that girls should be kept relatively ignorant on sexual matters, whilst boys are encouraged to acquire sexual experience with a variety of partners. For instance, in some traditions, after circumcision, boys were required to have sexual intercourse with a girl of their choice to prove that they have matured.

This culminates in the increased infection rate in young women that we are seeing today; which is especially true in Southern Africa. Akinrinola Bankole et. al. have noted that this is because many adolescent women are married to men who are considerably older. These older husbands are likely to have had multiple partners before, and may already have a sexually transmitted infection (STI), like HIV, which they then transmit to their young wives.

In addition, young women are also physiologically more vulnerable to HIV, as compared to older women. This is due to the changes in their reproductive tracts during puberty that make the vagina and cervix less resistant to infection.

Apart from the behavioural and physiological factors aforementioned, young people are also made more vulnerable by limited societal legal support, particularly in developing countries, where their reproductive health needs are overlooked. As A. Bankole aptly observed, “most young men and women have to overcome significant obstacles to obtain the information and care they need to have safe sexual relationships”.

The international community has made pledges. An interesting one was made at the 2001 UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV and AIDS, which committed to ensuring that, “By 2005, at least 90% and by 2010 at least 95% of young men and women should have access to information, education and services necessary to develop the life skills required to reduce their vulnerability to HIV infection..” However as Peter Aggleton et. al. noted, targets like these will be little more than empty gestures unless concrete steps are taken fast.

The first step is to break the retrogressive stereotypes about youth that are commonly upheld in our societies. For instance, in most cases young people are viewed as irresponsible and chaotic. Such perceptions about young people further discriminate against them, thus making them more vulnerable to HIV infection.

Therefore, it becomes imperative for stakeholders in public health to open the doors for young people’s participation, both in the identification of needs and in program design. This creates acceptability and ownership among the youth, making them more willing to participate in addressing the pandemic through youth driven strategies. Let us confront the global pandemic by safe guarding, and not shutting, ‘the window of hope’- young people.

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Writer Profile
Douglas Tigere

Douglas Tigere is my name .I am a 22 year old Zimbabwean young man with special interests in HIV and AIDS Information dissemination.

I am a 3rd year student at the National University of Science and Technology majoring in Journalism and Media Studies.
Currently am an intern in the HIV/AIDS Knowledge Management Unit (Media)at Southern Africa HIV/AIDS Informatuion Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS), Harare, Zimbabwe.

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