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Far Cry From Freedom: Challenges of Zimbabwean Youth in the face of HIV & AIDS Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by mbonisi zikhali, Zimbabwe May 5, 2006
Health   Opinions
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“Join the joy of the Jubilee with glee
for we are free, yet far from freedom.”
Young Zimbabwean poet, Victor Moyo, commenting on the 25 year
Silver Jubilee Independence celebrations in Zimbabwe in 2005.

When former South African President Nelson Rolinhlanhla Mandela addressed the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, 2004 via webcast, he stood a free man. Perhaps at that particular moment he was not free from a conscience that demanded his earnestness for the greater good of a nation ravaged by HIV & AIDS, but by sober definition, he was a free man. Although Zimbabwean youths have been critical in the recent decline in the seroprevalence rate, they are still a far cry from the real freedom to speak for themselves regarding the challenges they encounter in the face of the epidemic.

Zimbabwe has recorded a commendable decline in the seroprevalence rate, from 24.6 percent in 2003 to 20.1 percent in 2005. A recent epidemiological report by UNAIDS concluded that the decline was partly due to lower rates of new infections among young people. Additionally, there has been a marked decline in HIV prevalence among young pregnant women between 2000 and 2004, falling form 29 percent to 20 percent, suggesting a decline in the incident rate as well. (UNAIDS Epidemic Update, December 2005).

Yet there always seems to be a tokenistic reference to the role played by the youth in the fight against HIV & AIDS. It is really not a startling fact when one brings into focus the nature of Zimbabwean society, which has not evolved dramatically from the social dictates of the foregoing, culturally centralized precolonial order. Not only is interaction in communities (urban and particularly rural) governed by patriarchy, but the relationships between the old and the young are also steered by the overbearing, unquestionable decrees of the former and the unquestioning subservience of the latter.

From the media messages, which constantly urge youth to ‘guide the gains of independence’, to the privacy of homes where authority rests solely on parental guidance, youthful voices struggle in muffled tones to express themselves. Platforms for the youth do exist, such as the Junior Parliament, Junior Councils, the Zimbabwe Youth Council and a Ministry of Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation. But one struggles to recall at least one outstanding youth representative. The culture of respecting one’s elders turns even these youth representatives into mere rubber stamps of an adult agenda. It is even more amusing when some senior politicians refer to themselves as the youth, a misnomer half as comical as it is worrying.

The dynamics of youth vulnerability have shifted since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. The mortality rate during the immediate pre-independence era was largely from the casualties of the liberation war, known as the Second Chimurenga. Since the diagnosis of the first HIV positive person in Zimbabwe in 1985, a new war is being waged. According to UNAIDS’ Report on the Global HIV & AIDS Epidemic in Geneva, 2000 half of all 15 year-old males could expect to die before age 50 in 1997 compared to 15 percent in 1983. According to the same report, between 1983 and 1997 15-year-old females’ risk of death before the age of 40 also quadrupled from 11 to 40 percent.

The theme of the Bangkok Conference being “Access for all”, my belief is that Zimbabwean youth are still yet to access a voice distinctly their own, before they can gain reasonable access to science, prevention, treatment and resources. The upcoming XVI International Conference to be held in Toronto is also a moment too early to demand ‘Commitment, Action and Accountability’, from Zimbabwe if this voice has not been granted and a paradigm shift in the overall attitude of the older generation has not been accomplished.

On the 11th of April, 2006, the Minister of Health and Child Welfare, Dr Samuel Parirenyatwa officiated at the country launch of the ‘Acceleration of Prevention in the African Region’, whose main launch was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was here that he reiterated that his preferred three strategies for fighting HIV & AIDS have always been ‘Prevention, Prevention and Prevention.’ However, in a society where pre-marital sex is more often not condoned, the consensus among adults is that abstinence is the tolerable prevention strategy.

A study on condom use and abstinence among unmarried people in Zimbabwe carried out by Ravai Marindo, Steve Pearson and John B. Casterline (2003) discovered (from focus-group discussions) that young people often adopted prevention strategies not out of their own informed choices, but because of an obligation to submit to their parents’ authority. The researchers felt that this deadlock caused by the parental clause of abstinence without compromise led to a moral conflict, forcing young people to conceal their condom use so as not to disappoint their parents. Without adequate health education, they were bound to misuse contraceptives or at worst, not use them at all, leading to a greater risk of HIV infection and pregnancy.

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