August 10, 2016

Busting HIV Myths in Mozambique, One Text at a Time

Written by Hannah McNeish

This article originally appeared on NewsDeeply’s Women & Girls Hub.

For young Mozambicans trying to avoid contracting HIV, it’s difficult to separate rumor from fact. The Coalizao youth center in Maputo gives out answers and advice via SMS, in the hope that education is the key to curbing the virus’ spread.

When Flavia Meringue gets to work in the morning, her inbox is full of intimate questions from children, some as young as 10, asking questions like, “Should I be having sex yet?”

She and 11 other counselors at the Coalizao youth center in Mozambique’s capital Maputo answer hundreds of queries a day from people who use their phones to text in, anonymously and for free. They range from the curious – “What’s the maximum depth of a vagina?” – to the dangerous, perpetuating common myths about HIV/AIDS: “Do condoms transmit HIV?” and “Will having sex with a virgin cure me of HIV?”

In Mozambique, 11.5 percent of the population aged 15 to 49 has HIV/AIDS. According to UNICEF, girls and young women are three times more likely to be HIV-positive than boys and young men, and to get infected at an earlier age. Much of that, say health experts, is due to the fact that half of Mozambican girls are married before their 18th birthday – in northern provinces, a quarter of girls are married by age 15 – often to older men who have more than one wife. UNICEF says a third of Mozambican children are sexually active by age 14, but general knowledge of HIV prevention methods is low.

To have any chance of stemming the rate of HIV infection among Mozambique’s young people, adults have to stop denying children information about sexual and reproductive health, so that they can distinguish myth from fact and protect themselves, says Meringue. But in a conservative society where discussing sex is taboo – both at home and at school, where sex education is often on the curriculum but largely ignored – leading the next generation out of the dark requires some innovation.

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