Adolescent Behavior in the Context of AIDS in South Africa. (Transitions to Adulthood)

Article excerpt

South Africa is one of the countries hardest hit by HIV. Nearly 25 percent of the women who obtain antenatal care in South Africa are infected with HIV; in the country's most populous province, KwaZulu-Natal, the figure is 34 percent. Risky sexual behavior among youth is common; more than 35 percent of 19-year-old South African girls have been pregnant at least once.

The "Transitions to Adulthood in the Context of AIDS in South Africa" study investigates factors that may influence the lives and sexual behavior of young people in KwaZulu-Natal. This longitudinal study is a collaboration among the Population Council, Tulane University, the University of Natal-Durban, and Development Research Africa (a South African research organization). The working papers discussed in this article analyze evidence from the first round of data collection.

Opportunities for adolescents

Researchers assessed the association between risk-taking behavior and opportunities for schooling, work, and other activities. They looked at information collected from a representative sample of 2,992 young people aged 14-22 years who live in Durban Metro and Mtunzini Districts of KwaZulu-Natal Province. The population of KwaZulu-Natal comprises four main population groups: African (80 percent), Indian (10 percent), white (7 percent), and a population group of mixed ancestry known as coloured (3 percent).

This study revealed that gender is far more important than population group in predicting adolescent risk taking. For example, girls who live in communities where there is a high level of sports activity or who live where schooling is easily obtained tended to report that they had not had sex in the past year. These factors do not significantly influence whether boys reported having had sex in the past year.

One factor, the prospect of employment, was correlated with less risk-taking behavior among both boys and girls. Girls in areas where earning potential was high were almost two and a half times more likely to report having used a condom the last time they had sex than were girls living in communities where fewer adolescents were working. Boys from higher-wage communities were about 50 percent more likely to report having used a condom the last time they had sex than were boys from lower-wage areas.

"This is an area that deserves more research," says former Population Council research associate Carol E. Kaufman. "Because this analysis was based on a single round of data collection, it is not possible to determine cause-and-effect relationships. However, it's possible that when young people have more opportunities for education or work, they may be more likely to forgo sexual activity or to engage in safer sex practices when they do have sex." Kaufman, now at the University of Colorado, is a Council consultant.

Attitudes toward pregnancy

In communities where early age of childbearing is common and HIV prevalence is high, adolescent boys and girls may place themselves at risk of HIV to realize their childbearing preferences. Researchers wondered whether adolescents' attitudes toward pregnancy were affected by perceptions of the risk of HIV transmission in their communities and among their peers. …