Young men and women in Zambia are under pressure to engage in multiple sexual relationships due to prevailing attitudes about masculinity and for economic benefits, according to a study recently published in the African Journal of AIDS Research .
The report claims that young men are likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviour because that is the way men are expected to behave, with the majority of younger men believing that their identity was defined by their sexual prowess.
In contrast, many young women in Zambia are engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the aim of escaping poverty, according to the study titled ‘Reasons for multiple sexual partnerships: perspectives of young people in Zambia’.
“Among young women in the study, the practice of multiple sexual partnerships seemed fairly widespread and it typically involved powerful socio-economic ties, making it difficult for individuals to change their own behaviour,” the study said.
According to UNAIDS, an estimated 16.5% of Zambians aged between 15 and 49 are living with HIV. Women account for 57% of all HIV cases in the country with heterosexual intercourse considered the leading mode of transmission.
UNAIDS also says that there is a pressure on Zambian women to demonstrate their fertility that discourages them from using condoms.
A cultural trend of intergenerational relationships is also believed to be putting girls at risk. Statistics show that HIV prevalence peaks in men between the ages of 29 and 34—in women it peaks between the ages of 15 and 24.
There are believed to be twice as many girls and young women living with HIV in this age bracket than young men and boys.
In Zambia, like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, epidemiological evidence shows that multiple sexual partnerships haveï¿½made aï¿½considerable contributionï¿½to the rates of HIV transmission.
An increased emphasis on fidelity and reductions in the number of sexual partners is vital if these issues are to be addressed. But a combination of cultural and economic factors push young people into potentially risky sexual engagements.
According to the study, although young people were aware of the risks associated with having multiple sexual partnerships, they described several barriers to translating safer-sex knowledge into health-promoting safer-sex behaviours.
“For many young men, having many partners was a way of demonstrating their virility and manliness,” said the study. “It was seen as more acceptable for men than women to have multiple sexual partners.”
“When respondents spoke about young men having multiple sexual partnerships in order to ‘prove a point,’ it is evident that in essence the point they were trying to ‘prove’ was that they could live up to the cultural expectations of masculinity in Zambia,” the report said.
Notions of masculinity have long been singled out as a stumbling block to safe sexual practices between men and women and the study said traditional views of what is male must be challenged.
Effective responses to HIV and AIDS in Zambia need to tackle these often-sensitive cultural issues that facilitate HIV transmission.
Among young men, concepts of masculinity need to be redefined so that the meaning of manhood extends beyond sexual prowess.
The study also recommended that young women be offered more opportunities to become financially independent and secure.
“While the majority of the young people were well aware that having multiple sexual partnerships increased their chance of contracting HIV, it is vital that youth be made aware of the sexual networks that are created as a result of this multiple partnering – and how the chance of becoming infected can depend on one’s position within the networks,” the report said.
Sex education can play a key role in encouraging young people to either delay having sex or practice safer sex.