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Cultural practices exposing youths to Sexually Transmitted Infections

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Most parents and guardians do not want to accept that early sex debut is real. But for many parents living in Paramount Chief Kawinga’s area in Machinga District, this is no big deal as culture tolerates it. JOSEPHINE CHINELE looks at how sexual initiation cultures are fueling early sex debut and exposing the youth to Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
When she reached puberty, Brenda was told to cleanse and activate herself by having sex with any man; after that, she was declared a fully-fledged woman.
This is what culture demands of any girl of this age; and no one refuses for fear of cultural repercussions.
This being the case, Brenda’s parents had no choice but to send her to an initiation camp.
“I was told that, after the initiation ceremony, it was a must to sleep with a man in order to make myself feel warm. Failing which, something bad would happen to me or I would become a ‘cold’ woman, whom men would dislike in bed,” she recalls.
Brenda decided to make her sex debut once she got home but her mother surprised her.
“I noted that my parents disliked some cultural practices that promote sexual behaviours. My mother told me to ignore whatever I was told to do. She instead gave me her own session of counselling,” she claims.
Brenda further claims that people in her area believe that children are a sign of wealth and that every young woman who is of age should give her clan a lot of children.
“This is why it becomes easy for girls to drop out of school due to pregnancy and such girls rarely go back to school after giving birth. It is as if their purpose in life has been fulfilled and, as such, everyone is satisfied,” says Brenda, who failed to go further with her education despite her parents’ efforts.
Milanzi admits that teen-age pregnancies and STIs are a big problem in the area due to cultural practices associated with sex.
“Apart from cleansing to activate themselves sexually, the girls are also taught to please a man in bed. This encourages them to try and apply the techniques learnt. This also applies to boys, who are taught that they have transformed to men. They are also fed a lot of information about sex, which they become curious to experience,” she explains.
Youths of the area say there is a likelihood that adolescents might have contracted and died of Aids-related diseases and other STIs due to the negligence that has been there.
“Nowadays, we have several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have come to our area to raise awareness on negative cultural practices. We are happy that there are several NGOs that are coming to our area to enlighten us on the consequences of harmful cultural practices,” says Karim Majiga of Kongoma Youth Club.
He admits that most of the sexual cleansing activities are done without any form of protection, a development that exposes the youth to unwanted pregnancies and STIs.
“I have witnessed a lot of teenage pregnancies, maternal mortality and a lot of youths dying of unknown diseases. Since I now know of the implications of unprotected sex, I can fathom that some of these illnesses might have been STIs,” Majiga says.
Despite the challenges facing them, youths of Paramount Chief Kawinga seem to be organised. With the help of Nayuchi Aids Network Services (Nanes), they formed youth clubs, where they share their life experiences on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).
David Yusuf of Msumwa Youth Club says his greatest fear is not only impregnating a girl or contracting STIs but compromising his future.
He says, initially, youths of the area were blank on HIV or STIs and did not know that they could play a role in preventing diseases.
“I feel that if one fails to prepare now, life will become tough. If one gets married early, their future will be bleak and the likelihood of living in poverty is high,” Yusuf observes.
He adds: “We are now aware that unprotected sex is a recipe for contracting HIV. If one has failed to abstain, they are supposed to use a condom.”
A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation leaflet on young people says less than 40 percent of young people have adequate knowledge on preventing HIV in the East and Southern African (ESA) region.
It points out that, across ESA, lack of knowledge also contributes to high rates of unintended pregnancy, sexual abuse and HIV and other STI infections.
“Parents and caregivers who can be open about these issues with their children make a difference. The information young people receive is often distorted by taboos and misinformation,” reads the leaflet in part.
The Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS) says knowledge of HIV transmission enables people to avoid HIV infection. It says young people, who often have shorter relationships with more partners or engage in other risky behaviours, are at greater risk.
“In Malawi, 41 out of every 100 young women and 44 out of every 100 young men, have comprehensive knowledge of HIV. This includes knowing that consistent use of condoms during sexual intercourse and having just one uninfected faithful partner can reduce the chances of getting HIV, knowing that a health looking person can have HIV, and rejecting common misconceptions about HIV transmission,” reads part of the MDHS report, adding that the percentage of young people with comprehensive knowledge of HIV has remained the same between 2010 and 2015/16.
Information sourced from Kawinga Health Centre indicates that, out of 4,000 Out Patient Department patients that are treated, 100 have STIs and 25 percent of them happen to be the youth aged between 15 and 24 years.
Medical Technician and Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS) Coordinator for Kawinga Health Centre, Francis Nthonga, says STIs are common among the youth due to issues of early sex debut and the practice of unprotected sex.
“Mind you, this has just improved this year due to some interventions that have been there. In the past three years, 80 percent of patients diagnosed with STIs were the youth. The most common STIs are gonorrhoea, syphilis, genital warts and pelvic inflammatory disease, among others. There are also cases of HIV, but not much. There are 700 people on HIV treatment, only 30 are youths,” he says.
After Nanes presented findings of its mapping survey to Paramount Chief Kawinga, all traditional leaders of the area were trained in SRHR issues and a taskforce was established.
The taskforce comprises 60 traditional leaders. This group came up with by-laws to ensure that parents and each individual is held to account should any harmful cultural practice be condoned in their areas or should there be rising cases of teen pregnancies and school dropouts.
Taskforce Chairperson, Sheikh Nurain Chimera admits that Kawinga was almost a death ground for people because it was under-developed in every aspect. This taskforce comprises religious and traditional leaders.
“Through this group, we realised that talking about HIV, STIs and SRH issues in our respective prayer houses would be very difficult and the messages would carry less weight. We, therefore, use separate platforms such as madawa (Islam) or annual convention prayers,” the Sheikh says.
He adds that, originally, the issue of condom use was a taboo in the area but that communities are slowly accepting and adopting it as an HIV prevention tool.
The Sheikh admits that issues of condom use are slowly being accepted, considering that people are relating the diseases to their own lives.
“We ensured that we should touch their hearts. It transpired that most families have (at one point) lost loved ones to HIV. We also use relevant scriptures to convince them to protect themselves and the youth from contracting HIV,” he says.
Paramount Chief Kawinga says, even though his area is dominated by Yaos, who believe that circumcision transforms boys to men, they have now adopted medical male circumcision.
“We were enlightened that circumcision done the traditional way, as we used to do in the past, increases the risk of HIV infection. One blade was used on all the boys and some hygiene practices were not followed,” he says.
Kawinga says the primary advice to the youth is to abstain from sex and that, if they cannot, they should use condoms, acknowledging: “It is a fact, though, that some children just cannot take our advice. They are still getting infected. This is the challenge we have, despite having interventions at hand. We are not giving up.”
Nanes Executive Director, Chifuniro Moir, says the area mapping which his organisation did established a high incidence of STIs in Kawinga area, a thing which confirmed the practice of unprotected sex.
“We have facilitated the establishment of the taskforce and strengthened youth clubs to help resolve the issue. When we ask the people randomly, they say they banished all harmful cultural practices but we know that they might have gone underground,” he suspects.
He also confesses that the use of condoms was a major issue in this area and that it has taken the people of the area sometime to adopt them as a protective measure.
“The use of condoms was an issue but it wasn’t an issue for a girl to fall pregnant. Condoms have, for a long time, been associated with promiscuity. Our condom consignments used to expire but they are now on high demand and always not enough,” Moir admits.
He, however, says it is still a problem to break some barriers within communities, as others are strongly resisting to openly talk about sex with the youth. There is also resistance to rid the communities of some cultural practices.
Goal three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals sets to ensure healthy lives by promoting the well-being of all at all ages. Among other things, the goal seeks to end the epidemics of Aids, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases.
It also seeks to combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases by 2030.
National (Malawi) HIV and Aids estimates of 2015— released by the National Aids Commission, Ministry of Health in collaboration with UNAIDS— indicate that 88,000 youngsters aged between 15 and 24 are living with HIV and 23,000 youngsters aged 15 years and above die of Aids-related complications annually.
The Malawi National Youth Policy of August 2013 recognises that youths remain vulnerable to many health risks such as STIs, including HIV and Aids.
The policy pledges to promote the general health and non-discriminatory sexual reproductive health and rights of young people.
The policy further promises to ensure that sexual and cultural practices that promote the spread of STIs— including HIV and Aids, early pregnancies and teenage pregnancies— are discouraged.
Hopefully, Brenda has traits of her parents and will fight on to ensure that the next generation gets lid of harmful cultural practices.

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