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Young people resort to abstinence

In a country with the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate, young people are leading the call for total sexual abstinence as the only certain way to avoid AIDS.
James Hall

“Forget about condoms. Condoms don’t work. What is required is for young people to say no to sex,” said Thembelihle Zwane, holder of the Miss Swaziland beauty pageant title.

The Miss Swaziland crown is taken seriously in this small kingdom, and when American AIDS Activist and Evangelical Christian crusader the Reverend Bruce Wilkinson hosted thousands of high school students at Somhlolo National Stadium early this month to preach the abstinence message, Zwane was presented as a role model.

“I can tell you that people forget about using condoms when they are in bed together, and the devices themselves don’t always work. To save yourselves from the AIDS scourge, you must just say no to sex.”

Some AIDS activists wondered whether the new trend toward promoting abstinence “had legs” – that is, if it was a real movement that would fundamentally change youth’s behaviour toward sex, from the carefree and risky to the responsible and, in the age of AIDS, life saving.

“The problem with promoting abstinence in youth is that you are asking for a lot of self-control in a generation not noted for its self control,” said Patricia Thwala, a counselor who works with teenage orphans and vulnerable children. “Once they’ve ‘fallen,’ they may feel too guilty, or think the cause is lost, to consider other forms of safe sex,” she said.

But Thwala cannot fault the passion of Miss Swaziland Zwane for abstinence, and no health worker in government or civil society could be found who did not hope the trend would be received by all Swazi youth. “I am a Christian, and I say no to sex outside of marriage as a matter of moral principle. But there is also the issue of AIDS. You do not need to be Christian to want to save yourself,” said Angela Simelane, a high school student who attended Rev. Wilkinson’s Somhlolo Stadium rally.

An influential delegation of Anglican bishops from five nations was recently in Swaziland on a fact-finding tour, concentrating on the toll that HIV/AIDS is taking on the country (nearly four out of ten adult Swazis are infected by HIV). But they took the opportunity to advocate sexual abstinence as the most full-proof way to avoid contagion.

The Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, Njongonkulu Ndungane, led the delegation, which included Bishop David Beetge of the Highveld (South Africa), the Episcopal Bishop of Washington D.C. John Chane, the Bishop of Edinburgh, Scotland and representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury Brian Smith, the Bishop of Mozambique Dinnis Sengulane, the Secretary General of the Worldwide Anglican Communion Rev. John Peterson, and the Rev. James Rosenthal of the U.S.

Bishop Beete’s South African congregations border Swaziland to the west. His area shares Swaziland’s high HIV-prevalence rate. He believes that geographic and cultural commonalities means that solutions found in one area could be used by neighbours across the border. “Foremost on our agenda is abstinence. Despite any difficulties in achieving this goal, it is essential in the climate of HIV we have today,” Beetge said.

While beauty queens, newspaper columnists and church leaders offer their advice, what is the impact of the abstinence message on Swazi youth? The Swaziland office of the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF is about to release a demographic study in which a survey found a lowering of the HIV infection rate amongst Swazi teens. Such a finding would be a significant victory in the country’s troubled AIDS battle.

A source at UNICEF suggested that some youth are alarmed at the AIDS deaths they are seeing in older generations, particularly older siblings in their twenties, and young adults in their thirties. “They are becoming cautious. Some are avoiding sex. They are using abstinence as a form of self-protection,” said the UNICEF official.

Kevin Mamba, a 16 year-old high school drop out, agrees. “I don’t sleep around. It’s what killed my brother”. Mamba would normally be the type of child that social welfare groups would classify as “high risk.” He is poor, living in the township slum of KaKhoza on the western fringe of the central commercial town Manzini. He is an orphan, having lost both parents in recent years to a “wasting illness” that appears to have been AIDS.

He is no longer at school. Education is not free in Swaziland, which has no tax base to support such a programme, and children who cannot pay school fees go without. He is also unemployed, and spends his time roaming the dusty township paths or hanging around the downtown bus rank.

Bored, with no sense of the future, such young people tend to grab any opportunities for sex that they can find. But not Kevin. “I don’t want to die like that. Maybe I will find a nice girl, and we can get a (HIV) test to see if our blood is still pure. Until then, I’m not going to risk it,” he said.

Whether it is fear or religious convictions, the honest embracing of health messages that are broadcast so frequently or a sense of self-preservation, whatever the motivation the unthinkable is happening.

“Kids are practising abstinence. We have a long way to go, a really long way. But no one would have thought of doing without sex before. Something is happening to change behaviour. Sadly, it is probably the tragedy of so many other deaths. But if this leads to life-saving behaviour, then truly those who had died of AIDS did not die in vain,” said counselor Thwala.

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