The Herald (Harare)

22 October 2012

Zimbabwe: Socialisation Key to Containing HIV

column

A LOT of young people in Zimbabwe are more afraid of unplanned or unwanted pregnancy than contracting STIs and HIV. This has been expressed in the majority of contributions being made on Partners Zimbabwe platform, a national eForum on HIV and Aids and related health and development issues.

The ongoing discussion on the forum points to some very interesting issues concerning the socialisation and development of young girls in Zimbabwe and possibly anywhere else in Africa.

That girls are more afraid of something as impermanent as pregnancy compared to a chronic condition like HIV should be something to worry about.

It is something that should force parents, society, communities to sit up and take notice.

If we look at it closely, none of the two situations described is desirable. The majority of unwanted pregnancies and HIV infections happen due to lack of and poor use of protection such as condoms.

Understandably, some youths will quickly weigh in and opt for HIV because it is "less of a scandal" and nobody gets to know unless you tell them unlike pregnancy, which makes a very public announcement to the world that one had sexual intercourse, possibly unprotected too for that matter.

To a large extent, children conceived by unemployed youth are an overwhelming responsibility that young girls struggle with, because they themselves would barely be adults and can hardly afford to burden their families with an extra mouth to feed in these times of economic hardships.

Often, the men who impregnate them quickly abandon them and it feels like it is the end of the world.

This kind of short-term thinking and panic precedes logic that says, for a young person in Zimbabwe with its 90 percent unemployment rate -- HIV treatment options could be extremely costly and limited, and they may eventually die from complications brought about by Aids.

Though with the advent of ARVs individuals live longer lives, this is also notwithstanding the fact that they have to take various cocktails of medicines for the rest of their lives.

But what is it that makes any person get to a point where they would rather contract a lifelong illness than live with the temporary embarrassment of getting pregnant say out of wedlock?

Perhaps it is a challenge to society to examine itself and see what it has contributed to this scenario.

Growing up, a lot of girls are socialised to conform to specific societal expectations.

You grow up, get a good education, and get married preferably as a virgin, with a number of live beasts charged over one's head.

These are all good value to live by and instill in young people, for their own sake and the sake of their families.

In the old days, how often did we witness mothers cautioning their daughters to desist from unprotected sex because they would fall pregnant, which will cause the family great embarrassment.

These kinds of warnings were and are often enough to instill the fear of God in young girls.

Rarely did the threats and caution include the fact that they may actually contract deadly diseases!

But a lot of girls find themselves in situations where they are taken advantage of because of the pervasive poverty confronting families in Zimbabwe.

Girls, in particular, have more to lose when desperate situations sometimes push them into the arms of seemingly benevolent predators who very often just use them for sexual favours.

Although society greatly frowns upon unscrupulous and irresponsible behaviour among youths, girls who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies should never be made to feel responsible about the mistakes they made.

Young girls have a lot of potential to contribute meaningfully to development, and can be helped to realise their potential with support from the communities to which they belong.

They need the reassurance that they never have to choose the drastic route, given any choice.

Society needs to re-examine how it socialises children, and also seriously look into innovative ways of reducing the HIV prevalence among the youth.

Historically, community youth centres incorporating sports and recreations were creative ways of preoccupying a lot of young people including unemployed youths.

That concept would do well to be revived particularly now with unemployment soaring great heights.

A group of civil society organisations working in the sector of HIV and Aids came up with creative ways of reaching out to youths with critical awareness messages under a project called Young For Real.

The project has incorporated the use of new media, making use of social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and SMS to diffuse knowledge on sexual and reproductive rights and HIV prevention.

Youths are among the most frequent users of social networks and easily access such on their mobile phones.

Such platforms are applauded as they will easily reach critical audiences and sensitise the same with important sexual health and rights education.

ZWRCN is an information-based organisation committed to gender equality and equity. It is currently providing free basic computer skills training to women across all age groups.

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