Africa’s discord to comprehensive sexuality education a blow to combating HIV among teens

Situations banner on the status of HIV and AIDS of adolescents in Africa [Graphic: Courtesy]
Situations banner on the status of HIV and AIDS of adolescents in Africa [Graphic: Courtesy]

Keziah Juma is coming to terms with her shattered life at the shanty she shares with her family in the sprawling Kibera slums where friends and relatives are gathered for her son’s funeral arrangements.

While attending antenatal clinic, Juma who is only 16 years discovered that she had been infected with HIV.

“I went into shock and stopped going to the clinic, that is why they could not save my baby and I have been bed-ridden since giving birth two months ago,” she explains.

As we mark the international Day of the African Child, marked on June 16 of every year, Juma’s struggle to come to terms with her HIV status and to remain healthy mirrors that of many teens in Kenya.

After all, Kenya is one of the six countries accounting for nearly half of the world’s young people aged 15 to 19 years living with HIV. Other than for India, the rest are in Africa and they include Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and Mozambique.

This is according to a 2015 report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) titled Statistical Update on Children, Adolescents and AIDS, which shows that AIDS is a leading cause of death for African teens.

Yet in the face of this glaring epidemic, Africa’s response has been discordant with statistics leaving no doubt that the continent is losing the fight against HIV among its teens.

Julius Mwangi, an HIV and AIDS activist in Nairobi says that some countries such as Kenya seem to have chosen “to bury their heads in the sand in hopes that the problem will go away”.

Despite government statistics indicating that the age of sexual debut has increased from 14 to 16 years among Kenyan teens, this has done little for the country’s fight to combat HIV among its young people.

The Ministry of Health’s fast track plan to end HIV and AIDS shows that only an estimated 24 percent of teens aged 15 to 19 years know their HIV status. Still in this age group, only about half have ever tested for HIV.

Mwangi attributes the country’s high HIV rates among its teens to lack of practical interventions to address the scourge.

Mwangi made reference to the controversy over the Reproductive Health Bill 2014 which provided a significant loophole for young people less than 18 years to access condoms and other family planning services, but was rejected.

Judith Sijeny, a nominated Member of the Senate who sponsored the Reproductive Health Bill says that the proposed piece of legislation was rejected in its original form on grounds that it was encouraging sexual immorality among young people.

Sijeny said in addition to providing information on HIV prevention and treatment including advocating for sexual abstinence, the Bill was also “providing a solution by encouraging safe sex”.

“Statistics are providing a very clear picture that teenagers, including those living with HIV are engaging in sexual activities,” said Sijeny.

Government statistics show that one in every five youths aged 15 to 24 had sex before the age of 16.

A revised version of the Bill which will form Kenya’s primary health law now states clearly that condoms and family planning pills are not to be given to those below 18 years.

While other African nations like Kenya have chosen to be in denial, leaving their young populations vulnerable to early deaths due to HIV, others such as Zimbabwe decided to launch the “condomise” campaign.

The campaign was launched last year by the Zimbabwean government in conjunction with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) where they distributed small-sized condoms to fit 15-year olds in a bid to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

“This is an interesting development and very controversial. Giving condoms to young people is frowned upon so parents are now at a crossroads in many African countries, they do not know what to do to protect their children,” says Mwangi.

Still in Zimbabwe, irked by the condomise initiative, many adults have vehemently castigated the idea.

The UNFPA senior technical advisor, Bidia Deperthes went on record saying this Southern African nation’s teenagers from 15 years of age needed to be catered for in the condom distribution as some of them had become sexually active.

Statistics show that 24.5 percent of Zimbabwean women between the ages 15 to 19 are married, proof teenagers are sexually active, which to UNFPA justifies the distribution of condoms to Zimbabwe’s teenagers.

In 2007, South Africa’s new Children’s Act came into effect, expanding the scope of several existing children’s rights and explicitly granting new ones.

The Act gave to children 12 years and older a host of rights relating to reproductive health, including access to condoms, this at a time South Africa’s persons aged 15–24 account for 34 percent of all new HIV infections.

In 2014, at Botswana’s condomise campaign launch in conjunction with UNFPA, the organisation’s representative there, Aisha Camara-Drammeh emphasised that condoms were equally crucial for the African nation’s teenagers.

With condoms use rife amongst Botswana’s young people, the country is witnessing declines on new HIV infections, with the 15–24 year old’s HIV incidence declining by 25 percent, according to UNFPA.

Even further up in Malawi, in 2013, government there moved in to launch the first ever national HIV and AIDS prevention drive known as Condomise Campaign seeking to promote and increase condom use among teenagers there.

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