Sexual Activity among Zambian Female Teenagers: The Role of Interpersonal Skills

By Pillai, Vijayan K.; Barton, Thomas R. | Adolescence, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Sexual Activity among Zambian Female Teenagers: The Role of Interpersonal Skills

Pillai, Vijayan K., Barton, Thomas R., Adolescence

One of the characteristics of African fertility is that the transition to motherhood occurs at an early age. African adolescents are more likely to become mothers than are Asian or Latin American adolescents. Most African countries have fertility rates higher than 10% per year for the 15- to 19-year-old female population. In Nigeria, for example, nearly two thirds of all females 20 years old and below have given birth at least once (United Nations, 1989).

In Zambia, social control over sexual relationships varies across ethnic groups. Among the Bemba, a large ethnic group, boys and girls are often separated at the age of eight or nine. Early sexual socialization takes place within same-gender peer groups under the supervision of elders. Traditionally, the Bemba have encouraged marriage before girls reach puberty. However, Zambian customs have been changing (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 1984). In particular, the age at marriage has steadily increased.

Two factors are associated with the recent changes in marriage patterns in Africa. First, increases in the number of years of schooling among African teenagers (Achola & Kaluba, 1989) and in the proportion of females attending school have contributed to the postponement of marriage. Second, mass schooling has had an effect on traditional family values and attitudes toward sex (Caldwell, 1982; Schuster, 1979). Thus, changes in education and family values have considerably increased marital age in many African countries, such as Zambia.

Further, because of greater participation in educational and recreational activities, African adolescents are increasingly away from the direct supervision of parents and other elders. In addition, the age at menarche is slowly decreasing, mainly due to improved nutrition. These developments, along with later age at marriage, have given adolescents greater opportunity for premarital sexual activity and have increased the chances of pregnancy.

During adolescence, a large number of factors may influence the initiation of sexual activity. One is adolescents' ability to cope with changing body size and shape (Hetherington, Lerner, & Perlmutter, 1988; Lerner & Lerner, 1987). In particular, females have to develop interpersonal skills (particularly assertiveness) that will allow them to avoid unwanted sexual involvement (Schinke & Gilchrist, 1977). However, the importance of teaching adolescents skills related to coping and assertiveness is not well recognized by African policy makers.

Several theoretical approaches have focused on the role of interpersonal skills in preventing problem behaviors. For example, social learning theory (Bandura, 1986; DiBlasio & Benda, 1990) suggests that adolescents who can effectively implement their decisions are less likely to engage in problem behaviors. Studies have shown that primary prevention strategies, such as sex education, are more likely to be successful when complemented by decision-making and assertiveness skills (Barth, 1989; Kirby, 1985).

The present study examined the relationship between interpersonal skills (assertiveness) and sexual activity among female adolescents in Zambia. Three important factors associated with courtship behavior were controlled: emotional involvement, participation in traditional initiation ceremonies, and boyfriend's age (Furstenberg, 1976; Zelnik, Kantner, & Ford, 1981; Lema, 1990; Thornton, 1990; Miller, McCoy, & Olson, 1986; Spanier, 1977; Oppong, 1983). The dependent variable, sexual activity, was divided into coital and noncoital behaviors.


The sample consisted of unmarried females between the ages of 13 and 19. Several studies on biosocial changes have suggested this age range for adolescence (see Flack, 1971). The females were drawn from seven randomly selected secondary schools (forms 3 through 7) in two large urban areas of Zambia (Copperbelt and Lusaka Central Provinces).

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