NJORO, 5 October 2011 (PlusNews) – They arrive at university looking forward to the freedom and challenges that come with life on campus, but researchers say few Kenyan “freshers” are prepared to navigate the murky waters of adult sexual relationships.
“In recent research, which has yet to be filed, we found that 70 percent of freshers [at Egerton University, in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province] know how HIV is transmitted, but almost 90 percent have never attended [a] seminar or forum on HIV,” said Bernard Kibor, HIV/AIDS coordinator at the university.
According to the Kenya demographic and health survey 2008/2009, 47 percent of women and 58 percent of men have had sexual intercourse by the age of 18, when many young people first start university. Although sex education in schools is part of the country’s HIV prevention strategy, many teachers are not trained in the subject and young people often glean their knowledge of sex from their peers.
When Mercy Cherono* joined the institution, she was a Christian who strongly believed in abstinence until marriage. She remained a virgin for the first year but later met a fellow student who promised marriage, and had sex with him.
“He convinced me that he would marry me and I trusted him as he was also a staunch member of the Christian Union,” she told IRIN/PlusNews. The couple visited a voluntary counselling and testing service at the university and both tested negative for HIV.
Cherono says she remained faithful to him, but in her third year began to feel unwell and was advised by medical staff to test for HIV.
“I fainted after discovering I was HIV-positive, I could not believe it,” she said. “I still regret having had sex before marriage. I have never told my parents.”
Female freshers are often targeted by older students who are aware of the risk of HIV and perceive freshmen as less of a risk due to their relative inexperience.
Mark Kamanu* says he tested negative for HIV in August 2011, despite having four separate girlfriends and a number of unprotected sexual encounters since joining the university three years ago. “I attribute my status to the fact that I always [dated] freshers, most of whom had one or two partners before,” he told IRIN/PlusNews. “Had I dated girls in second or third year, maybe I would be positive.”
A 2009 knowledge, attitudes and sexual practices study conducted in western Kenya’s Maseno University and published in the East African Medical Journal found that just 15.8 percent of sexually active students said they used condoms every time they had sex. An estimated 22.5 percent reported never having used a condom, while about 77 percent said they had used protection at one time or other.
For some students, sex is a way to pay their way through university, while others use it to send money home. The Higher Education Loans Board lends students money for their expenses; many send the money home and get by on gifts and cash from sexual partners.
The university takes the threat of HIV seriously, and includes HIV education as part of the orientation package for new students. Discussions include subjects such as condom use, HIV testing, the dangers of alcohol abuse and advice on dealing with their new-found freedom.
“We talk to them about the dangers of risky sexual behaviours, reproductive health and risks associated with emergency contraceptives,” said Kibor.
According to Egerton University’s chief medical officer, Watete Wakube, many students adhere to the warnings early on, but abandon them later. “You will see so many couples attending the VCT at the university a few weeks after a new admission,” he said. “When a couple tests negative, they assume they have a green light to start having unprotected sex, forgetting that one, or even both of them may be unfaithful.”
Wakube estimates that about 3 percent of the 8,000-plus students at Egerton are HIV-positive.
“A few of them have come out about their status and are living positively, while the largest percentage prefer keeping it to themselves for fear of stigmatization,” said Kibor.
Jackson Ulira, an official at the I Choose Life NGO, which works at the university, said his organization used plays, concerts and other activities to keep the issue of HIV alive in the minds of students, new and old.
“We do our part in informing them, but the decision is fully personal.”
*Not their real names