Unsafe Behaviors Most Common among Poor Women

Population Briefs, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Unsafe Behaviors Most Common among Poor Women


Around the world, HIV infects about 1 percent of 15-24-year-olds, but in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, more than 14 percent of people in this age group are infected, according to a 2003 population-based survey by Lovelife and the Reproductive Health Research Unit in Johannesburg. Young women are at particularly high risk of infection. South Africa has three infected 15-24-year-old females for every infected male of the same age. Poverty may play a key role in HIV risk. Approximately 57 percent of people in South Africa were living below the poverty income line in 2001, according to the Southern African Regional Poverty Network. Population Council health economist Kelly Hallman investigated the effect of socioeconomic disadvantage on the sexual behaviors of young women and men in KwaZulu-Natal, the most populated South African province. Hallman is a member of the Council's "Transitions to Adulthood in the Context of AIDS in South Africa" study team. She found that poverty is more consistently correlated with unhealthy sexual behaviors among females than among males.

The team studied two districts within KwaZulu-Natal: Durban Metro and Mtunzini Magisterial District. These districts represent the spectrum between urban and rural areas. The team surveyed all willing young people aged 14-24 years within these districts, using interviewers who were the same ethnicity, gender, and general age as the respondents. The investigators asked young people about many aspects of their lives, including schooling, work, sexual and reproductive health behaviors, HIV/AIDS knowledge, childbearing, and marriage. Researchers also talked to heads of households, usually parents, about family composition, living conditions, economic status, and HIV/AIDS attitudes. "Transitions to Adulthood in the Context of AIDS in South Africa" was the first panel study in South Africa to focus on adolescents.

Poverty, gender, and sexual behavior

Hallman found that economic disadvantage significantly affected a number of sexual behaviors and experiences of young females and males, and that the behavior of young women was more substantially influenced by poverty than was the behavior of men.

"When discussing risky sexual behaviors that might be influenced by low socioeconomic status, many people think only of exchanging sex for money, goods, or favors," says Hallman. "The data show, however, that a wide range of risky behaviors is affected by poverty." Although being from a poorer household does increase the likelihood of a young woman's exchanging sex, Hallman's analysis showed that it also raises her chances of experiencing nonconsensual sex. Poverty increases young women's chances of having multiple sex partners. It lowers a young woman's chances of abstinence following earlier sexual encounters and condom use at last sex and reduces the age at which young men and women have their first sexual encounter.

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