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Dealing with barriers to HIV prevention in young girls

A GROUP of young girls strut in the sand along the enchanting Barotse flood plains of the Zambezi River in Mongu. One of them holds out a phone and they cuddle in for a selfie. They seem carefree, and it is a beautiful sight to behold, for in these girls lies the future leaders and mothers of the nation.
However, many things continue to pose a threat to the full development of the country’s young population, which should be a source of concern, as young people compose approximately 74 percent of the country’s total population.
Top among concerns for young people is the constant threat of contracting HIV as they begin to explore and experiment with their sexuality. Added to this threat is that of poor nutrition in young adolescents, which makes their young bodies even more vulnerable in events of early pregnancy and child birth.
While many measures have been undertaken to curtail the spread of HIV, especially among the youth, many barriers continue to spring up and render most efforts difficult.
According to the National AIDS Council report of 2013, almost 60 percent of all new HIV infections among young people aged between 15 and 24 occurred among adolescent girls and young women.
Such statistics prompted the Civil Society Organisations for Scaling Up Nutrition Alliance (CSO-SUN), with support from the World Food Programme (WFP), to initiate research to determine the various barriers in prevention of HIV and nutrition in young women. The research was undertaken in Mongu district in Western Province and Mumbwa district in Central Province.
A 2014 report from CSO also indicated that 12 percent of women interviewed started having sex before the age of 15, further highlighting the need to intensify measures to curb the spread of the disease within the young population.
The general results of the study revealed that although adolescent girls are at risk of contracting HIV due to early sexual engagement, the level of risk is even made higher if there is a tendency to have multiple partners over a period of time with inconsistent use of condoms. The risks are made higher if the level of access to and utilisation of sexual and reproductive health services is low.
In terms of hindrance to nutrition, the study established that adolescents are rarely considered a priority target group for nutrition interventions despite their bodies’ demand for more nutrients and calories as a result of the increase in physical growth, maturation and changes in body composition.
Speaking during a panel discussion after presentation of the adolescent HIV and nutrition pack from CSO-SUN in Mongu recently, Limulunga district commissioner Liambo Ndombo said the information given was valuable and urged all district education officers present to include some of the presentation suggestions in their discussions with teachers so that it is relayed to learners as well.
“The issue of HIV and nutrition are inter-related and should be communicated to all stakeholders such as teachers, parents, and caregivers, who all incorporate such information as they deal with our young learners,” he said.
Adolescent Reproductive Health Advocates executive director Cassandra Matale, who facilitated the discussion, summarised the key barriers on HIV as insufficient sex education, low utilisation of voluntary counselling and testing services, lack of youth friendly services and a lack of community youth support groups and systems.
“In terms of addressing nutrition in young women, it was established that there is a general lack of nutritional programmes targeting adolescents, especially in livelihoods experiencing high levels of poverty, as priority is given to children and the elderly. Teenagers will usually have no decision as to what will be consumed, as the decision is usually made by the mother,” she said.
And Limulunga Day Secondary School headteacher Siyumbwa Mubita said it is important to encourage adolescents to talk more about sexual activities in a guided manner.
“The civil society must be much more involved in the lives of young people through having guided discussions where they are able to freely ask questions and be given the correct advice,” he said.
Mr Mubita said it is especially more difficult for young people who travel from their homes and begin to live on their own in order to be nearer to schools. The girls are not necessarily in boarding facilities protected by the schools, but instead rent cheaper accommodation in the areas neighbouring the schools.
“These young girls are at risk, especially when their food runs out, because then they will opt to miss school to go in search of food and in the process get into temptations such as involving themselves with older men,” he said.
While the stakeholders continue with the suggested interventions, the girls continue wading in the sand, oblivious of the multi-level barriers affecting their access to the best nutrition possible.
They are totally basking in the last rays of the sun as it leaves way for the moonlight, unware that in the conference room across the recently tarred road, a group of adults are seeking the best ways to warn them about eating healthy food and protecting themselves from contracting HIV.