‘Gold rush’ in Zambian universities fueling the HIV epidemic

By Given Mutinta

Today marks 23 years since the World AIDS Day started with the aim of raising money, increasing awareness, combating prejudice and improving education on HIV/AIDS. The World AIDS Day is important because it gives us an opportunity to honour the victims of the AIDS pandemic and focus our attention on the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS related conditions.

In Zambia, it is almost 25 years since the first case of HIV was reported and we are one of the direly-affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimated Zambia had 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in 2007. Estimates show that as of 2009 about 82,600 new HIV/AIDS related infections of people aged of 14 and 49 years were recorded. This translates into about 227 new infections everyday. The national HIV prevalence is estimated to be 14.3 percent among people aged between 15 to 49 years.  As of 2010, Zambia’s HIV hyper-epidemic is considered to be severe, mature, generalized and heterogeneous, affecting different population sub-groups.

Students in Zambian universities fall within the age group that is at high risk of HIV infection. There are many behaviours and practices that expose students to HIV/AIDS. Of particular interest is what is termed as a ‘gold rush’. This is a phenomenon where senior students ‘rush’ into relationships with first year students. Senior students either abandon their partners for the ‘gold’ new students or date both concurrently. The ‘rush’ into sexual relationships puts students at risk as both partners know very little about each other’s past lives.

Fanning the embers of the ‘gold rush’ is the fact that many of the new students come from single-sex schools and when they join the universities, they are overwhelmed by male and female students. In their naivety, they get into relationships and before they know it, they are already engaging in sex. It is also evident that upon joining universities, students find more freedom and space than they had before.

This increased freedom makes students ‘adventurous’ in spite being inexperienced with regards to university lifestyles. Some students are pressured into adopting expensive campus lifestyles that encourage male-female relationships. The first year students appear to get carried away easily by the so called ‘campus life’.

When new students arrive at the universities they seem innocent and academically purposeful, but soon change to ‘fit into’ university lifestyles. Female students easily succumb to the culture of the ‘gold rush’ because they want financial support to procure fashionable items like clothes, cell phones, shoes, and others so that they are able to look ‘cool’ or rather ‘up-to-date’. Hence, students quickly but unskillfully ‘hook-up’ without fully understanding what it entails. Some students join universities as adolescents making it difficult for them to reject advances by senior students.

Interestingly, some students fall prey to the ‘gold rush’ because they join universities with preconceived ideas that universities are places to find a lifelong partner and that fellow students, like them, are HIV free. Shrouded in ignorance, the culture of the ‘gold rush’ is accepted unquestioningly, and the fact that many of the relationships do not go beyond the university gates, and that their partner has concurrent partners outside of university is never dealt with. Thus, the culture of the ‘gold rush’ makes students fall prey to the cruel ‘jaws’ of HIV/AIDS.

The level of risky sexual behaviour among students is alarming, but not hopeless. For instance, university induction programmes if well planned, designed and implemented can be used to sensitise students on sexual behaviours and practices that expose them to HIV/AIDS. A majority of the students join universities ‘tabula rasa’ without knowledge of the risk of HIV/AIDS in universities.

From the outset, new students should be educated about the structural context underlying the acting out of the ‘gold rush’ on campuses. Prevention strategies should address students’ personalities that include values, personal beliefs, expectations, attitudes, and orientations toward self and university life. They should also deal with perceived university socio-environmental systems, which include perceptions of other people, especially friends’ attitudes toward sexual risky behaviour and campus conditions that encourage risky sexual behaviour. The behavioural and biological factors that influence the ‘gold rush’, such as illicit substance abuse and age and gender respectively, should also be addressed.

In a nutshell, new students should be empowered with protective skills and knowledge which can serve as buffers to allow them to live their sexual lives responsibly. There is also a critical need to develop education institutional structures, such as economic empowerment programmes targeting vulnerable students and life skills programmes to combat HIV & AIDS on university campuses.

This can only be a reality if studies on students’ sexual behaviour are conducted with the ultimate objective to develop advocacy frameworks that will influence policy and practice for the prevention of infection with HIV among Zambian university students.

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