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ETHIOPIA: Bright lights, big city is high risk for students

Photo: wd/IRIN
The 'kissing pool' at AAU's Siddist Kilo campus is a favourite haunt for student couples
ADDIS ABABA, 2 November 2009 (PlusNews) - Being a university freshman is an exciting time for any young person, but many students get carried away, partying too hard and taking sexual risks.

"It's a chance to experience life; there is no family, there are no restraints," said Biniam Eskinder, project coordinator of the Modelling and Reinforcement to Combat HIV/AIDS (MARCH) project in the Siddist Kilo Campus of Addis Ababa University (AAU). "Some use it in a good way but some do risky things, such as chewing khat [a mild stimulant] … having [unprotected sex] and using commercial sex workers.

"Some of these students will have limited awareness of the risks of HIV/AIDS, and then there is peer pressure as well," he added.

Ethiopia's overall HIV prevalence is a relatively low 2 percent, but prevalence in the capital, Addis Ababa, is 7.5 percent. According to the Federal HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office (FHAPCO), anecdotal evidence of widespread unsafe sexual practices suggests students may be among the more high-risk groups in terms of HIV vulnerability.

MARCH statistics show that 50 percent of AAU students are sexually active, but only half of them use condoms, said Biniam.

High-risk behaviour

"Often they do not use condoms… they are doing it emotionally, without any thought," said Selam, a 19-year-old AAU student.

Selam added that students coming to the city from the countryside usually had less information about HIV and were not as street-smart as Addis youth, leaving them unprepared to resist unwanted sexual advances or insist on protected sex.

Former student Girma Tesfaye, now Addis Ababa project coordinator for HIV-focused NGO Mekdim, says female students often fall prey to “sugar daddies”.

"There are lots of beautiful girls at university and older people with beautiful automobiles stop around the university and look for them," he said. "It is common to take students this way. They have lots of money; they will provide the girls with money and different [presents].

"The older 'daddy' may have three or four partners in such a way, which facilitates the spread of HIV," he added.

Selam agrees that this is a significant problem, noting that in the early evening, heavily made-up and scantily clad female students make their way to the area outside the main gates known as the Debab to try to find a rich boyfriend, usually one who already has a wife, and quite possibly a string of other girlfriends.

"If you have sex because of a threat, or you have a 'sugar daddy', it is one-sided and that makes them more at risk," said MARCH's Biniam. "Influenced or coerced sex is high risk."

''Often they do not use condoms...they are doing it emotionally, without any thought''
Evidence also suggests that male students use local sex workers; a survey of Addis-based sex workers found that 5.8 percent of their clients were students. Sex workers in the nearby Arat Kilo area confirmed that many of their clients were AAU students.

MARCH, with funding from the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, produces Life 101, a quarterly photo graphic novel that follows the story of three students and one couple at AAU as they experience daily university and city life and deal with issues such as transactional sex, condom use, relationships, testing for HIV, and gender equity. MARCH also facilitates student-led entertainment events to stimulate discussion of the issues.

Recently, more than 20 Ethiopian university presidents initiated a request to the Ministry of Education and FHAPCO for more HIV activities, including a national HIV/AIDS policy and strategy for universities, an HIV/AIDS research and information centre, gender and HIV/AIDS advocacy efforts and sustainable training and discussion forums.

wd/kr/mw

Theme(s): Education, Gender Issues, Health & Nutrition, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, Urban Risk,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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