‘Children among highest new HIV infections’

Minister of Health and Child Care Dr David Parirenyatwa

HARARE – A United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund report has indicated that 55 percent of new HIV infections in Sub-Saharan Africa — including Zimbabwe — are among children, adolescents and women.

The trend has been described as worrisome by experts, who said communities and government need to do more to reduce the incidences, especially among juveniles.

This comes as 70 percent of juvenile criminals are reported to be engaging more in sexual offences, fuelling the spread of HIV among children and adolescents.

“There is a huge information and knowledge gap in children concerning sexual reproductive health and rights issues, which in my opinion is one of the major concerns child rights organisations should be concerned about,”Tawanda Gurure, a child protection manager, said.

Gurure, who is attached to Care at the Core of Humanity (Catch), an organisation that assists juvenile offenders and victims with legal and psycho-social support, said the need to dispense such education ought to be prioritised because in most sexually-related cases the minors would have consented.

“It is important to note that in most cases these are consensual sexual relations between these children…The issue of charges mainly come in as a result of disapproval by the girl’s family.

“The adolescent stage is very complicated and often and that’s when children are more experimental, secondly, social media has had an impact as well…children can easily exchange sexually-related material (the age of the Internet makes it easy to access these materials),drug abuse is also an issue and generally there is little to no parental/guardian supervision.”

South Africa-based Zimbabwean social worker, Anesu Svinurai, echoed similar sentiments, saying government intervention was important to stop new infections among children and adolescents.

“There is a way to halt the spread of HIV. We must focus on young people. More than half of those newly-infected with HIV today are between 15 and 24-years-old, yet the needs of the world’s 1 billion young people are routinely disregarded when strategies on HIV are drafted, policies made and budgets allocated. This is especially tragic as young people are more likely than adults to adopt and maintain safe behaviours,” Svinurai said.

“Today’s youth have inherited a lethal legacy that is killing them and their friends. According to Unicef, an estimated 11,8 million young people aged 15 to 24 are living with HIV and each day, nearly 6 000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 become infected with HIV. Yet only a fraction of them know they are infected.

“The majority of new infections in this region are among young people aged 15 to 24. In Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, it is estimated that more than 60 percent of boys aged 15 today will become infected with HIV during their lifetime.”

Recently, an eight-year-old boy, whose name cannot be published to protect his identity, became the youngest rape convict and got sentenced to corporal punishment.

“…the child was assisted through Catch with legal services and psycho-social support. The organisation has a rapid response mechanism to cases referred within 24 hours after being notified of the child’s situation,” Catch executive director Max Chambari said.

“Sexual offences are the most prevalent amongst children assisted by Catch for both victims and perpetrators. These can be attributed to a number of factors among them substance abuse, exposure to sexual content at home or on media platforms, this then leads to children acting out what they see or experience.”

Development expert Milton Chinyanga bemoaned how the rural communities had been marginalised and lacked knowledge on sexual reproductive health.

“It is quite worrying how some of the juveniles would only come to know about their HIV status in court after they would have been requested to be tested there. You find that with most cases in the rural areas people are actually ignorant of these issues and a lot needs to be done to sensitise community leaders,” Chinyanga said.