Africa, I’m sure you know, is an expansive continent, but did you know it is filled with 1.3 billion youths between the ages of 15 – 24? Experts have called the growing number of youths in Africa the “youth bulge” and everyone from multinational companies to governments are taking notice. Many positive stories are emerging from the continent about the youth from their massive adoption and use of mobile technology and social networks to Africa’s future workforce capacity and economic growth potential. Despite these stories, there are others that do not rank on the positivity index such as youth and HIV/AIDS. The hard reality is these youths, in large part, are also having sex with multiple concurrent partners and spreading the infectious disease.
In Zambia, where I am visiting as an International Reporting Project Zambia Fellow, the percentage of youths with HIV/AIDS stands at five percent based on data from UNICEF. And of these youths, young women have a higher percentage than young men to contract HIV/AIDS (7 percent to 3.1 percent). According to UNICEF, less than 50 percent of young people between 15 – 24 used condoms during high-risk sex and even fewer had a comprehensive knowledge about HIV.
There is good news, however.
The Zambian government is working through community youth groups that are funded in part by USAID, called Safe Love Clubs, that actively encourage an open dialog about HIV education and prevention. These Safe Love Clubs, held in various locations around Lusaka, are action groups specifically designed by Communications Support for Health (CSH) to change youth behaviors about sex and HIV/AIDS. Today we visited a Safe Love Club in the Chawama compound, which is located south of Lusaka’s city center. Of note, a compound in Zambia is what other countries like India and Kenya call slums.
In a centrally located church in Chawama where steady streams of light beamed through thin slit windows we walked into a Safe Love Club meeting where ten young women and three young men sat in a half circle on plastic lawn chairs and attentively listened to their female facilitator. The facilitator, thin and who looked easily to be in her forties, held a rapid fire question and answer session that tested the youth club members’ knowledge about HIV/AIDS. As we walked into the club meeting and sat in our guest chairs to complete the circle a young man was confidently telling the facilitator three drivers that increase HIV/AIDS in Zambian youth.
Despite a slight language barrier where our questions had to be translated, we were able to glean critical insights about the Safe Love Club as well as the power dynamic between young men and young women specifically in Lusaka and between men and women in general in Zambia. While we learned that girls in Lusaka generally do not have arranged marriages, they are very much subservient to their husbands or partners; it is simply the way the Zambian culture is. Women cannot under any circumstances refuse her partner sex whenever he wants it. In fact, it is a woman’s role learned from puberty to please her man at all costs even though it harms her in the long run with an increased risk of HIV/AIDS.
The young women in the club relayed heartbreaking stories about condom negotiations with their partners. One young woman said men look down upon women who urge their partners to use condoms thinking they have become prostitutes or that they are having sex with another partner when she just wants to protect herself from HIV/AIDS. The men rationalize, “How can a person take a bath with a raincoat on?” And, so for the majority of men, the condom is shunned. This is one of the reasons women across the board in Zambia – whether young or adult women – have a much higher prevalence of HIV/AIDS than men. They cannot refuse sex, it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to bring up the issue of condom use, and women typically remain in relationships where their partners are in other multiple concurrent sexual relationships - a breeding ground for the disease to spread.
While Zambia is opening up more about HIV/AIDS education and preventative measures to bring the infection rate down women still are not listened to by men. In fact, another young woman in the meeting told us, “Women are given a deaf ear in this country.”
Earlier this morning, we met with and listened to international physician, journalist, and HIV/AIDS activist, Dr. Manasseh Phiri, who gave us an overview of HIV/AIDS in Zambia through facts and figures and stories from being on the frontlines of the disease ever since it hit the continent in the early 1980s. He told us real change with the HIV/AIDS crisis must come through women. He said cultural practices must change and the status of women must be raised.
Unfortunately from everything we learned today that might be easier said than done.