JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
ZAMBIAâ€™S population is largely made up of young people, with the youth â€“ those between the ages of 18 and 35 constituting 36.7 percent of the total national population, of which 17.7 percent are male and 19 percent are female.
According to statistics (United Nations Population Division Report, 2005), nearly 50 per cent of the developing worldâ€™s population is youthful.
As such, it has become imperative for Government to critically invest in the youth as a means of addressing the challenges they face if the country is to have meaningful and sustainable development.
This is because the youth form a large part of the productive population of Zambiaâ€™s economy.
One of the many challenges facing the youth today, apart from high levels of unemployment, is HIV/AIDS.
The fact that the youth are at the prime of their sexuality, means that they are the most exposed group to the risk of getting infected with HIV.
Currently, about 1.2 million people in Zambia are reported to be infected with HIV.
Young girls have been identified as being particularly at risk of infection due to vices such as early marriage and gender-based violence, which includes defilement and rape.
Zambia has a very high rate of defilement cases, despite various efforts meant to curb the vice, including stiffer punishment of those convicted of the offence.
In 2013, the countryâ€™s biggest referral hospital, the University Teaching Hospital, recorded 1,225 cases of defilement.
The following year, that number had risen to 1,243.
And according to official statistics by Government, the prevalence of child marriage has reduced from 42 percent in 2007 to 31 percent currently, although some key stakeholders doubt the accuracy of such data. The reason is simple; a lot of cases involving child marriage still go unreported.
Statistics indicate that Eastern Province has the highest incidence rate for early marriage at 60 percent, while Lusaka has the least at 28 percent.
Last year alone, World Vision withdrew 150 girls from homes where they had been married, with a good number of them being put back into school.
Inevitably, women have a higher HIV prevalence rate of 16.1 percent compared to men at 12.3 percent.
Through the recently revised National Youth Policy, Government seeks to address both those at risk and those living with the pandemic by identifying measures that can help youth prevent HIV, live positively with HIV, and reduce related stigma and discrimination.
Among the objectives of the policy is to promote the provision of comprehensive sexuality education and sexual reproductive health services that meet the specific needs of the youth.
The policy also encourages youth participation in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of comprehensive sexuality education programmes and youth-friendly health services; and promote access to health testing and counseling services by the youth at clinics and youth organisations.
According to Minister of Youth, Sport and Child Development Vincent Mwale, the policy is built on the premise that Zambia, like most African countries, has a significant proportion of its countyâ€™s population comprising people under the age of 35. This youthful demographic variable presents an opportunity for national development by harnessing the potential that the youth have.
The key policy priority areas under which interventions have been crafted include employment and entrepreneurship development; education and skills development; health and cultural, creative industries and sport.
Cementing these policy areas are crosscutting issues such as gender, disability, environment, HIV and AIDS and participation. It is envisaged that the latter can be harnessed by inclusion and active participation of youth in decision-making processes, policy development, programming and project-implementation.
However, it has been observed through a survey by the United Nations Population Fund that condom use and HIV testing among young people is very low.
And Mwelwa Chibuye, who has been living with HIV for 12 years, having acquired the virus when she was a student at Evelyn Hone College, says many young people do not adhere to their prescribed medical regime due to the fear of being stigmatised.
One of the specific objectives of the policy is to reduce social, cultural, religious and economic factors that make people vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, and advocate increased access to interventions for the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS/STIs through integrated youth-friendly programmes.
But like every good policy, the youth policy shall not yield results until it has been fully implemented to the benefit of young people.
JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka