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African youth still short on healthy sexual practices

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 28 Nov 2012 15:37 GMT
Author: Mike Gilmore
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mike Gilmore is a web writer at International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). The views expressed are his own.

So what are young people in Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe thinking about sex (apart from some of the more obvious things)? And what, curiously, are they thinking about one of those things that can come after sex (their future family)? Read on …..

In conjunction with its 60th Anniversary Celebrations, IPPF – the world’s largest sexual and reproductive health and rights organisation – decided to undertake a quick-fire survey of young people from these four nations via MXIT (Facebook, African-style) and mobile phones.

Not surprisingly, this approach engendered a large and lively response, with over 9,000 young people participating in less than seven days. (Which, as a sidebar, is testament to the information-gathering power and reach of mobile and internet technology).

There was significant consistency across countries in response to some questions, but revealing disparities elsewhere.

Take education (“Where do you learn most about sex?”). “From friends” was the clear leader in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria (scoring 38 percent, 39.6 percent and 33.6 percent respectively). In Namibia, whilst the figure was lower (26.9 percent), friends still came out as the top source of information on sex.

From IPPF’s point of view, that’s a deeply discouraging and worrying sign. Ill-judged street-corner and playground gossip with mates who are most likely a mine of misinformation, conjecture, some facts and a large dose of bravado, aren’t conducive to charting a happy and safe path through the muddy waters of teenage and adult sexuality. Why do stock myths such as “you can’t get pregnant the first time?” have such currency? Because it’s something which young people say.

If the information that friends provide about something so basic is so utterly wrong, it’s not hard to imagine that when it comes to more complex matters, young people will be totally at sea, and the outcomes of ignorance are not pleasant. Not at all pleasant.

This is why IPPF has long campaigned for schools and NGOs to prioritise Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) as the key to unlocking a safe, happy, informed and respectful approach to handling physical and emotional relationships, and as a means to promote active citizenship.

IPPF does so on the back of overwhelming evidence that when young people are informed, when they can make their own choices, when the legal and medical establishment openly permits accesses to services, and when parental, community and religious strictures do not impinge on freedoms … then young people lead healthier, happier, safer sex lives and minimise the risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or having unwanted pregnancies.

Except in South Africa, families scored highly as primary sources of information on sex (averaging around 20 percent). South Africa logged just 4.5 percent here: clearly, someone’s not talking to someone, either because they don’t want to or they can’t. Instead, young people in South Africa look to TV, media and the internet (combined, this was where 35 percent of South Africans learned most about sex). Schools came in at around 20 percent in Nigeria, Namibia and Zimbabwe, but South Africa again lagged on 13.9 percent.

Does this reliance on friends and media in South Africa have any particular impacts? You could argue it does: when it came to “when did you first have sex?”, 11.6 percent of respondents said “before 14”, as against 6.3 percent in Zimbabwe, 7.1 percent in Nigeria and 7.5 percent in Namibia. In general, those surveyed in South Africa started to have sex earlier, and far fewer had not had sex at all.

 The next obvious question, then, has to be “do you use contraception”? Well, do they? In South Africa and Zimbabwe, around 33 percent said “always”, the figure dropped to 25 percent for Nigeria, whilst Namibia recorded 41percent. So, do young people use it “sometimes”? Apparently: 37percent in South Africa, 29 percent in Zimbabwe, 36 percent in Nigeria, and 34 percent in Namibia. Which clearly means that some young people answered “never” (24 percent in South Africa, 33 percent in Zimbabwe, 32 percent in Nigeria and 21percent in Namibia).

That’s the least happy statistic: 27percent of young people in South Africa never use contraceptives, 38 percent of young people in Zimbabwe and Nigeria never use contraceptives, and 24 percent of young people in Namibia never use contraceptives.

Unsurprisingly, the things that worry young people most when having sex are (in order, and universally across all countries) contracting HIV, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections. If they never use contraceptives, then they should be worried. And if they never use contraceptives, it’s probably because they haven’t learned that they should or experience difficulty in getting them. Or because family, friends, peers, doctors, teachers, religious leaders or whoever disapprove of it. So we come full circle.

One final thing that IPPF was curious about, particularly in the light of development issues, was family size. When young girls become pregnant early, they tend to drop out of education. Without education, their employment and income-generating opportunities are restricted, and they tend to have more children. Conversely, later pregnancy means they spend longer in education, which means better economic prospects and fewer children. The personal and national economic impacts are substantial.

So the survey simply asked “What’s the ideal family size when it comes to children”? A maximum of three was the overwhelming consensus (84 percent in South Africa, 79 percent in Zimbabwe, 73 percent in Nigeria, and 89 percent in Namibia). Only in Zimbabwe and Nigeria were there significant numbers who thought that having more than three children was desirable (14 percent and 18 percent respectively).

Interesting indeed.

This was a simple and exploratory survey only, but it provides pointers which may well be worth pursuing in more detail. At its simplest, it seems to be saying: young people in South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe haven’t got access to reliable sources of information of advice on sex and sexuality; too many don’t use contraception whilst worrying about HIV, pregnancy and STIs; and finally they don’t want to have large families.

So. Let’s up the ante on education. Let’s increase the uptake on contraception. Let’s decrease fear of HIV, STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Let’s lead healthier, more prosperous lives.

IPPF has made massive – massive – strides in inculcating the message and delivering the services that will make all this possible, for all of its 60 years. As Member Associations gather from all over the world, this research will further galvanise them to pursue a goal which is attainable, and which – in the words of one of the women who inspired the movement – will change the world.

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