A parent’s job is to guide their children safely to adulthood yet many parents or caregivers – for multiple reasons – neglect the very real risk to their children of contracting HIV. HIV is the second largest cause of death of adolescents globally and the first in Africa. New HIV infections are concentrated in older adolescents and young people, particularly adolescent girls and young women. South Africa has the highest number of estimated new infections per week – over 2,000 – among women aged 15-24.
Parents urgently need to have the difficult conversations with their children about sex, sexuality and sexually transmitted infections.
ROLE OF PARENTS
Parents play a vital role in prevention strategies for HIV – through their parenting practices, actions and by communicating values and expectations. Adolescent decision making and behavior are influenced by many factors such as peers, the family, community, and society. But parents in particular play a significant role in the gender and sexual socialization of their children from an early age.
“The family is the social unit where the child learns acceptable behavior,” says Jacqui Dunn from Child Welfare South Africa. “This is also where the child is supposed to experience safety, love and support.”
HEADS IN THE SAND
“It is not an issue we can afford to have our heads in the sand about,” says the Networking HIV and AIDS Community of Southern Africa’s (NACOSA) Caroline Wills. “South Africa has a very high number of children living with HIV, with estimates ranging from 330,000 to 450,000 of children under 15 infected. The number of adolescents dying from HIV-associated conditions has doubled in recent years.”
Although schools, through the Life Orientation curriculum, play a role in providing young people with information about sex, sexuality and sexually transmitted infections, it is not enough to stem the tide of new infections among the youth in South Africa. “So far, we are not having a big enough impact on the rates of new infections amongst school-goers,” says Wills.
Parents and young people report a number of obstacles to open dialogue, including lack of knowledge and skills, as well as cultural norms and taboos. “Parents are often embarrassed to talk about these issues,” continues Dunn. “Or they are culturally prevented from discussing sex and sexuality.” But effective parenting for prevention is a potentially life-saving intervention so it is important for parents to overcome their embarrassment in order to raise happy, healthy and successful children.
PARENTING FOR PREVENTION
NACOSA, in partnership with Child Welfare South Africa, recommends the following simple ways that parents or caregivers can become prevention champions as part of South Africa’s HIV and AIDS response:
- Educate yourself about HIV and AIDS. There are a lot of damaging myths and misconceptions about HIV and AIDS that fuel stigma and prevent people from getting access to things that will help prevent HIV. Good, accurate information is available from South Africa’s She Conquers campaign – co.za.
- Put your own prejudices and embarrassment aside and listen to your children without judgment. Answer their questions honestly – they will learn about sex somehow, so make sure they have accurate information. Children need to be heard and understood by their parents and open, non-judgmental communication is the cornerstone of prevention with young people.
- Take an interest in your children’s lives. Know where they are, who their friends are, what they are watching and consuming, particularly online. Be alert to any signs of substance abuse. Support them in their schooling life, motivate them to work hard, be involved in school activities and finish school.
- Have the difficult conversations. Talk to your children about sex, sexuality and the risks associated with sex like sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy. Research indicates that there are positive effects from teaching children about HIV and AIDS at a younger age. Information should be age-appropriate and match your child’s level of development.
- Model behavior that will help your children develop respect for themselves and the rights of others. Parents are their children’s first and most influential role models – they look to you to see how to behave in the world. Show them how to make healthy choices and display kindness and respect for others.
- Look after yourself. Parents and caregivers with good mental and physical health can devote more undivided time and attention to the children in their care. Make sure you are around to see them become successful adults.
The drivers and consequences of HIV and AIDS on children and young people and their families are complex and multi-faceted. By having the conversations, parents and caregivers can play an active part in the HIV and AIDS response and ensure they raise the next generation of healthy, happy citizens.