Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A Review of Adolescent Sexuality in Southern Africa: Cultural Norms and Contemporary Behavior

Throughout Southern Africa, there is a growing concern about the risks associated with adolescent sexual activity, particularly regarding unwanted pregnancy (including pregnancy-related school dropouts and the social and economic implications of unmarried parenthood) and the risk of HIV transmission. To help facilitate the design of policies to deal with the problems of today’s adolescents, it is necessary to gain a thorough
understanding of the contemporary patterns of adolescent sexual behavior, as well as the factors that affect them. This paper addressed these issues using information from the 1995 Botswana Adolescent Reproductive Health Survey in conjunction with focus group interviews.

A number of important findings emerge from this study. First, the data show that Tswana adolescents become sexually active at an early age, and that this is the case for females and male alike, although the latter become sexually active at an earlier age than females. Among adolescents aged 15-16, four out of every ten males is sexually experienced, as opposed to about one out of every seven females. By the time they reach age 17 the majority of both male and female adolescents are sexually experienced. Furthermore, it is quite common for both females and males, particularly among older adolescents, to have one or more irregular sexual partners. The difference between males and females is unexpectedly small, with 39% of females and 47% of males aged 17-18 having at least one irregular partners during the last year, despite the fact that male focus group participants argue that males are supposed to have multiple partners while females are not.

These patterns of adolescent sexual behavior represent a clear break with the traditional norms regarding sexual behavior. The data show that today’s adolescents do not think becoming sexually active is advantageous because it may lead to marriage or offspring. Instead, sexual activity is mostly valued because it gives pleasure or status. The large majority of both male and female adolescents recognize that becoming sexually active involves reproductive health risks such as pregnancy and infection with the HIV virus or other sexually transmitted diseases. These findings indicate that recent HIV prevention campaigns are reaching and informing a large fraction of the adolescent population, and that these activities need to be continued and expanded.

In Botswana, as in many other African countries, there is considerably debate about the question of who is responsible for providing adolescents with the necessary reproductive health information. In the past, such information was routinely provided by means of the initiation ceremonies, but today that is no longer the case, and adolescents need to obtain such information from other sources. This study indicates that female adolescents appear most responsive to information provided by peers, parents, and teachers. Males, on the other hand, are most responsive to information obtained from schools (especially when they are older), and to a lesser extent to information from parents, peers, and the media. Most importantly, unlike females, males becomes more responsive to these sources of information as they get older. The finding that young males appear to respond little to any of these sources of reproductive health information suggests that it may be worthwhile for policy makers to target these younger males.

Finally, the analyses show that male and female adolescent sexual activity are affected by very different factors. After controlling for other factors, male adolescents are more likely to have engaged in sexual relations if they have secondary level education, or if their reproductive health attitudes are influenced by information from teachers or the media. As expected, those who are influenced by their parents are less likely than others to have been sexually active. Female sexual behavior, on the other hand, is not influenced by these factors. None of the indicators of influences on reproductive health attitudes are significant, and in many instances the direction the effect is in the opposite direction than is the case for males. Likewise, having secondary level education does not significantly increase the likelihood that female was sexually active, but those girls who are enrolled in school are less than half as likely to have had intercourse than those who are in school. This effect may partly be explained by pregnancy-related school dropouts, and by the existence of female boarding schools, but it is highly likely that schoolgirls deliberately try to avoid having sexual relationships. This finding contradicts claims that female students are more prone than others to have irresponsible sexual behavior (for example by engaging in sugar-daddy relationships). Further research is needed to determine to what extent the low rates of schoolgirl sexual activity result from government efforts to reduce the incidence of schoolgirl pregnancy, or from other factors.

The finding that the factors affecting male and female adolescent sexual behavior are very different has important implications for program managers and policy makers. Indeed, the results from this study suggest that in order for programs and policies to be most efficient, it may be advantageous not to treat adolescents as a homogenous group, but rather to use different strategies for reaching and informing males and females. Future research can help pinpoint the specific strategies that are likely to be most efficient.

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