ELIZABETH CHATUVELA, Mongu
THE time is 21:50 hours in Mongu, the capital of Western Province. Suddenly, the town centre is bursting with a crowd of skimpily dressed young females heading to a variety of night entertainment outlets within the vicinity.
A closer look at most of them reveals that they are already tanked-up, while others are seen sipping from the almost empty bottles of alcoholic beverages in their hands.
Nearly in a blinking of an eye, almost everyone disappears and re-emerges later between midnight and 01:00 hours either in the company of a male folk or being aided by slightly sloshed fellow ladies as they stagger back to their respective homes.
As Iâ€™m trying to concentrate on a couple which is about to get on a taxi, my attention is drifted to a youthful twosome perched in a dark corner of one of the night spots. This pair is seemingly in a compromising mood, after which money exchanges hands.
Apparently, this is not the only couple that is having a â€˜dark corner meetingâ€™, as a good number of them are also engaging in similar doings and do not seem to be bothered by privacy issues.
They are under the influence of alcohol, which may lead them into engaging in casual sex, thereby exposing themselves to HIV infection, considering that Western Province has the second highest HIV prevalence rate at 16 percent, after Lusaka Province whose rate stands at 16.1 percent.
The sad part of all this is that most of these young women who are spotted on the streets of Mongu at awkward night hours are seen in the morning buying foodstuffs using the money supposedly raised from the nightâ€™s illicit transactions.
This risky behaviour by young females in this part of the country has been reflected in the 2016 Zambia HIV/AIDS Population-based Impact Assessment (ZAMPHIA), which indicates that female adolescents between the ages of 15 and 25 are the most affected.
According to the report conducted by ZAMPIHA, 8.1 percent of the young females of this age group are infected with HIV while only two percent of their male counterparts are living with the virus.
Western Province has a population of slightly over a million people.
One of the young females I will call Martha for the sake of convenience, confessed that poverty has compelled her to go and search for money on the streets of Mongu.
Martha, who is in her early 20s, says the money she makes from the night business enables her to fend for her family of eight.
She is, however, willing to change her lifestyle if she is accorded an opportunity to do something to earn a living.
â€œCircumstances have forced me to do what Iâ€™m doing, and I have no choice because I need to buy food and other household goods,â€ she says.
Fortunately, Marthaâ€™s wish to change her way of life is not far from becoming a reality, as a non-governmental organisation, Zambia Community HIV Prevention Project (Z-CHPP), which has opened its branch in Mongu, will work with adolescent girls and young women in Mongu to fight prostitution and help prevent the spread of HIV.
Z-CHPP, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), will also empower over 500 young women with survival skills, through the On-Saving for Wealth and Assert Creation (OWAC) programme.
The OWAC pilot project in Mongu will be implemented under Mulambwa, Liyelelo and Mongu Urban clinics with support from the district and provincial health offices.
Regional programmes coordinator Lubinda Chingumbe says the coming of Z-CHPP to Mongu will help shape the direction regarding the fight against HIV/AIDS in the provincial capital and other districts.
Mr Chingumbe says his organisation will work with provincial permanent secretary Mwangala Liombo, traditional leaders and school heads, who will be community champions in HIV/AIDS prevention services.
The Catholic Medical Mission Board will spearhead the programmes on behalf of Z-CHPP.
â€œOur programme targets adolescent and young women as the ZAMPHIA report says this is the group which is most affected. The programme does also include their sexual partners who in this case are male adults. The main essence of having the OWAC programme is to ensure that once trained, the girls do not go back to the sugar daddies for money, but will be able to generate their own income,â€ he says.
The organisation will also set up safe space centres in communities where young people will access HIV prevention services with the help of community change urgents.
Z-CHPP has equally included gender mainstreaming in its programmes to sensitise female teenagers and young women on the adverse effects of gender-based violence.
Mr Chingumbe says Z-CHPP is greatly honoured to have been accorded an opportunity to operate in Western Province.
Copperbelt, Lusaka and Southern provinces are the other regions where the organisation operates.
The Z-CHPP has a five-year co-operative agreement with USAID to provide HIV prevention services to priority populations, which include adolescent and young women with their sexual partners, discordant couples and other high- risk groups such as mine workers, fishermen and migrant workers.
ELIZABETH CHATUVELA, Mongu