The Progress of Nations

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 My song against AIDS
 Data brief: Progress and disparity  

Surveys show what youths don't know could kill them

AIDS is the gravest catastrophe ever to face the African continent and it threatens to erase all the hard-won progress achieved in economic, political and social spheres. Young people are the most vulnerable, and an analysis of surveys conducted among this age group over the past six years is presented here. The findings have serious policy implications for the donor community, national governments and advocacy groups. The overwhelming message from these surveys is that information about AIDS and its deadly danger is not getting out or is not being absorbed. As this selection of stories shows, overcoming the information deficit among boys and girls about their own vulnerability is a matter of extreme urgency, especially at a time when prevalence levels among 15- to 24-year-olds in some countries are soaring as high as 20-25%.
Source: DHS 1994-1999
Source: Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), 1994-1999.

The results of recent surveys in 17 countries show a dangerous lack of knowledge among young people about how they can protect themselves from AIDS. In all 17 countries, girls know less than boys do. This knowledge gap is one important element in understanding the higher HIV-infection rates among girls in many countries and in improving prevention efforts.

In Mozambique, where HIV prevalence is a high 13%, 74% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were unable to name a single way to protect themselves from the infection. For boys, the figure was a lower but still disturbing 62%. In the United Republic of Tanzania, where 8% of the population is believed to be infected, 51% of girls surveyed could not name a single method to avoid infection, nor could 35% of boys. In Zambia, 23% of girls and 10% of boys, in Côte d’Ivoire, 22% of girls and 8% of boys and in Zimbabwe, 17% of girls and 8% of boys were unable to name even one way to avoid infection.

In countries with fairly low prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS, there are exceedingly high percentages of young people unaware of protective measures – in Bangladesh, 96% of girls and 88% of boys; and in Chad, 66% of girls and 45% of boys.

The data stress the need for much greater emphasis on reaching all youths and especially girls and women, whose rights to information are all too often frustrated by poverty, local customs, violence and social or religious bias. Also, as survey data from Zambia and Zimbabwe show, even where awareness of how to protect oneself is relatively high, sexually active girls did not see themselves at risk (see story ‘Seeing no risk in sex’).

This reveals that basic knowledge about HIV/AIDS does not always lead to less risky behaviour. Experience shows that the chances for behavioural change improve when information campaigns address underlying attitudes, values and skills needed to protect oneself, and when those at whom the messages are aimed – in this case young people – actively participate in designing such campaigns.


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