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Open, no holds barred conversations about sexual health result in ‘increased uptake’ of HIV prevention services

There are 7.7 million HIV-positive people in South Africa. Women account for 63% of all adults living with HIV and 64% of new infections. Picture: Miguel Á. Padriñán/Pixabay

There are 7.7 million HIV-positive people in South Africa. Women account for 63% of all adults living with HIV and 64% of new infections. Picture: Miguel Á. Padriñán/Pixabay

Published Aug 2, 2022

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South Africa has had an ongoing health crisis coupled with continued economic disruptions.

Our country has the world's largest HIV epidemic, accounting for 19% of all HIV patients worldwide.

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There are 7.7 million HIV-positive people in South Africa. Women account for 63% of adults living with HIV and 64% of new infections. And every year, approximately 240,000 new infections are reported .

If you’re young, female and South African – it’s taboo to talk openly about sex or relationships. Not because you don’t want to, but because it’s not “normal”.

Young people's sexual activity does not increase when sex and sexuality are discussed with them. Instead, it educates them, giving them information, understanding, and the capacity to make decisions that will impact every part of their lives.

Why is it still considered taboo to discuss sex openly?

In order to avoid making other people uncomfortable, South African women are required to refrain from discussing their sexuality or romantic connections.

It is not surprising that there are still a great deal of unsolved questions and that ignorance leads to a great deal of HIV/AIDS-related battles being lost.

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Shout-It-Now, a local non-profit organisation (NPC) that empowers young people to own their sexuality believes that young people should feel comfortable discussing sex and sexuality, including sexual health. The organisation is demonstrating that by having the right conversations, perceptions of what is normal can change and significantly influence HIV-related behaviour.

Shout-It-multi-media Now's campaign ran for 6 weeks, from August to October 2021. It reached over 3 million people and demonstrated that changing the narrative about sexuality can be successful by leading to a nearly 7-fold increase in HIV testing, and a 44% increase in the uptake of the HIV prevention drug Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) among Shout-It-target Now's audience of 20–24-year–old females.

Shout-It-Now is demonstrating that by having the right conversations, perceptions of what is normal can change and significantly influence HIV-related behaviour. Image by stokpic from Pixabay

The campaign gave young women a platform to ask questions about their sexuality in a safe and non-judgemental environment.

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According to Zonja Penzhorn, Head of Marketing at Shout-It-Now, "young women in South Africa are discouraged by society from speaking openly about sex and relationships.

"They frequently face criticism, are pressured to cover up their bodies, and are made to feel guilty for wanting to have these conversations. Hence normalizing sexual conversations should be on the forefront.

“Instead of simply telling young women to get tested for HIV and take PrEP, we tapped into their biggest turn-on, their biggest desires: to improve their sex life, to have relationships free of judgement and risks, and to have the freedom to live life the way they choose.”

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“With the right message and service delivery, you can significantly improve health-seeking behaviours among highly vulnerable populations,” said Penzhorn.”

Penzhorn believes that normalizing sexual health talks promotes young women's demand for HIV prevention and that this was a strategy that others should be encouraged to adopt.

"We want people to join the conversation and normalize the discourse so that vulnerable young women have the opportunity to be the next generation that is HIV-negative.”

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.

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