Anti-Aids message may be lost on youth

14 June 2006

The anti-Aids ABC message -- abstain, be faithful and use condoms -- has left many of the continent's youth confused, an Aids conference in Durban heard on Wednesday.

In a survey of 1 766 pupils conducted in the Valley of a Thousand Hills near Durban, only one schoolgirl said abstinence is "not having sex until one is married".

Being faithful is also an area of concern. Only two pupils in the survey made any reference to one's partner when asked what "being faithful" meant.

The survey -- conducted by the Valley Trust, the Child Development Research Unit and funded by the United States President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) -- was conducted to find out how schoolchildren between the ages of 11 and 15 understood the ABC message.

Tobey Nelson -- of an organisation called Horizons, who presented the survey's findings -- said the survey showed that abstinence, being faithful and consistent condom usage are behavioural patterns that are not thought to be common or feasible.

Virginity testing is cited as a deterrent to sex. But delegates also heard from a Kenyan aid worker how teenaged girls in Kenya's coastal area indulged in anal sex after being encouraged to protect their virginity.

The Valley of a Thousand Hills survey found that peer pressure, coercion and rape are barriers to abstinence for girls.

"If a girl abstains and boys know that, they then want to rape that girl because they know that she does not have Aids. The bad thing is that they want to kill that girl after [the] rape," one schoolgirl was quoted as having said during the survey.

Peer pressure was also described as a barrier to being faithful.

"When you tell them [peers] that you don't have a girlfriend or you only have one girlfriend, they would just laugh at you saying that you are stupid," said one schoolboy.

Conference delegates were repeatedly told that messages about abstinence, being faithful and using condoms have to be clear and non-contradictory, and have to take cultural practices into account.

But not all the signs are negative. The two-year "Zip Up" campaign in Nigeria has increased abstinence and is believed to have raised the age at which Nigerians have their first sexual encounter from 16,8 years to 17,6 years.

Zip Up is a mass-media campaign run by the Society for Family Health in conjunction with some of Nigeria's leading faith-based organisations.

Delegates heard how a "cool slogan" on billboards and the country's airwaves helped the youth of Nigeria identify with abstinence.

"We were aware from our research that the word 'abstinence' was not well understood, so we needed something brand new," said the campaign organisers.

The conference, attended by 1 100 delegates and hosted by Pepfar, ends on Thursday. US President George Bush announced the five-year, $15-billion plan in 2003.

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