Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

HEALTH-LATAM: Youth Trapped Between AIDS and Ignorance

Diego Cevallos*

MEXICO CITY, Nov 30 2002 (IPS) - Young people in Latin America, 560,000 of whom are living with HIV, are put at higher risk by contradictory advice or a complete lack of sex education, say activists.

The youth in this heavily Catholic region are told on one hand to ”inform yourself, and practice safe sex,” and on the other to ”practice abstinence, and be careful with condoms, which are risky.”

But most youngsters receive no information at all on how to avoid infection with the AIDS-causing HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

”The AIDS situation among young people has already reached a critical level,” and it is time for governments and society at large to do their job and tackle the problem, said United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) expert María José Alcalá.

But influential conservative church groups in the region complain that providing young people with sex education, broad information on AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), and access to condoms and health services amounts to encouraging immorality.

The use of condoms is ”perverse” because it goes against nature, says Roman Catholic theologian Estevao Bettencourt from Brazil.

Mexican prelate Javier Lozano says the only effective way to avoid AIDS is to respect the sixth commandment, ”thou shalt not commit adultery”, and to protect one’s virginity until marriage.

Although more than 80 percent of the people of Latin America describe themselves as Catholics, a large proportion become sexually active between the ages of 15 and 20, outside of marriage, and often without protection, which exposes them to unwanted pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

In Cuba, for example, 67 percent of teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 admit to being sexually active, as well as 31.5 percent in Mexico, and 29 percent in Chile, according to UNFPA figures.

”We must face up to reality: young people are going to have sex with or without the information we can give them,” said Alcal

Some 1.9 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean, including 210,000 who were infected this year, states the latest report by the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Nearly one-third of those testing positive for HIV in the region are between the ages of 15 and 24. Of that group, half are poor and have little to no access to information on sexuality, according to United Nations statistics.

The problem is that many youngsters practice unsafe sex: of a total of 13 million births a year in the Americas, two million are to teenage mothers, reports the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

In the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico, as in most of Africa, over two-thirds of mothers with little to no schooling have their first child before the age of 20, according to a study sponsored by the World Bank.

”The solution to AIDS cannot be sought within the same logic that generates the illness, that is, sexual permissiveness,” argues Fernando Chomalí, spokesman for the Catholic Pastoral Institute of the Family in Chile.

For Simón Alvarado with the Venezuelan anti-abortion group Provive, the strategies of the UNFPA and other international bodies against the spread of AIDS and in favour of the use of the condom have failed.

Provive and similar groups in other countries, like Provida from Mexico, maintain that the use of condoms only aggravates the problem of AIDS, by providing weak protection against contagion.

Far from equipping youngsters with tools to help them live their lives in a safe and sensible manner, sex education leads them down the path to promiscuity, they argue.

But the majority of the agreements signed by governments in world summits on infancy, development and women state that the best antidote against AIDS is broad information and access to health services and condoms.

The criticisms of conservative groups have no scientific basis, said Alcalá.

Governments must promptly take on a leadership role in the fight against AIDS, which means providing sex education to young people and promoting the use of and facilitating access to condoms, the best barrier against the disease, she said.

In a review of 53 studies on the effects of sex education among youngsters, UNAIDS found that 27 of the reports concluded that sex education and information about AIDS neither increased nor diminished the rate of sexual activity, and 22 found that sex education delayed the start of sexual activity and reduced the risk of disease and unplanned pregnancies.

Only three of the studies analysed by UNAIDS reported an increase in sexual activity associated with sex education.

But conservative groups remain unconvinced. They believe the correct route is to promote abstinence. Provida in Mexico has even threatened to take to court government officials who carry out campaigns talking about sex and AIDS.

Mónica del Río, the head of a parents’ group in Argentina, visited Congress to ask lawmakers to exclude her children and those of the rest of the group from the reach of laws guaranteeing information about sex and free access to condoms and other methods of birth control.

”The state cannot trample on the right of parents to educate their children,” argued Del Río, who maintained that sex education ”compromises the physical and moral health” of young people rather than protecting it.

Survey results compiled by UNAIDS in Latin America highlight a high level of ignorance on AIDS among those in the 15-24 age group.

Many people – 45.6 percent of young people in Bolivia, 41 percent in Ecuador, and 28 percent in Peru – are unaware, for example, that someone who looks healthy can pass on HIV.

”You have to know about sex so you don’t die too young,” said Santiago, a 16-year-old Mexican, while buying condoms in a store in Mexico City. ”I’m going to use them with my new girlfriend, because I don’t want any surprises or scares,” he added.

* Article produced by IPS on the occasion of World AIDS Day, Dec 1, 2002, with contributions from the following IPS correspondents: Marcela Valente (Argentina), Mario Osava (Brazil), and Gustavo González (Chile). World AIDS Day Special Edition https://www.ipsnews.net/aids2002/index.shtml

 
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Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

HEALTH-LATAM: Youth Trapped Between AIDS and Ignorance

Diego Cevallos*

MEXICO CITY, Nov 30 2002 (IPS) - Young people in Latin America, 560,000 of whom are living with HIV, are put at higher risk by contradictory advice or a complete lack of sex education, say activists.
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