Teaching scouts about HIV at a youth workshop in C.A.R. 82% of adolescents living with HIV are in sub-Sahara Africa. (Photo/ Pierre Holtz for UNICEF)

Boys, Girls And HIV In Africa: Knowledge Is Power (But Not Always)

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EVERY hour, 26 teenagers aged between 15 and 19 were newly infected with HIV in 2014 globally, of these, 16 were living in sub-Sahara Africa.

AIDS-related illnesses are the leading cause of death among adolescents (10-19) in Africa, and the second leading cause of death among adolescents around the world. Of the two million adolescents living with HIV, about 1.6 million (82%) live in sub-Saharan Africa, data from UNICEF shows.

For a generation born in Africa in the 1990s and after, navigating the reality of HIV/AIDS is just one of the many challenges of growing up.

Teenage girls and young women are disproportionately affected by HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in countries with high HIV prevalence. In the region, 7 in 10 new infections in 15-19 year olds are among girls, and only 11% of adolescents aged 15-19 in the region have been tested for HIV in the past 12 months.

Still, there has been progress – HIV incidence has fallen in many of the most severely affected countries because adolescents and young people are adopting safer sexual practices.

In several countries, risky behaviour is on the decline, including the initiation of sex before age 15, sex with multiple partners and sex without condoms.

But on a continent where formal sex education is often opposed on the grounds that it will ‘spoil’ children, the lack of proper information fuels the spread of the disease.

Data from WHO indicates that on average, just 28% of girls aged 15-24 in Africa had comprehensive knowledge on HIV/AIDS – what it is, how it is spread, what one can do to avoid it, and how one can live positively if one contracts the virus.


The trend is slightly higher for boys of the same age group, at 34%. Boys generally tend to have more access to formal education and information than girls do. They possibly face less stigma getting information, or speaking about, sex in particular, as most societies place a premium on female ‘innocence’.

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But in countries with a high HIV prevalence, including Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Namibia, the trend is reversed: more girls than boys were able to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS.

Africa-wide data shows that if a country has a high HIV prevalence, it is correlated with a higher percentage of girls having comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS. For boys, however, their knowledge has a weaker correlation with national HIV prevalence.

With 70% of adolescent HIV infections among girls, it make sense that a country with a high prevalence would focus its awareness and education efforts on the most affected group.


But it could still be the same gender norms at work here. By making HIV education a girls’ issue (understandably so), avoiding HIV now becomes the girl’s job. She must be strong, and protect herself so as not to ‘fall victim’.

But there is less emphasis on questioning and breaking the gender norms that threaten her in this way, on notions of masculinity that encourage men to have more sexual partners, and older men to have sexual relations with much younger women.

The structures that vest much more social power in men than women remain intact, in fact, the language of ‘avoiding’ is the language of the powerless.

Without putting the same pressure on boys, the cycle is unlikely to be broken: boys grow up to be men.

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