A new study warns that the practice of African teenage girls marrying older men could condemn many of the girls to an early death from AIDS.
A combined British and Zimbabwean team conducted the research in rural Manicaland in eastern Zimbabwe, close to the border with Mozambique. Dr. Simon Gregson of London’s Imperial College is the team leader.
He says, "The levels of HIV prevalence were much higher for women than for men at these early ages, late teens and early twenties. So what we wanted to do was try and see what kind of factors might help to explain why women were getting infected at a faster rate than men at those young ages."
The research centered on the relationships between teenage girls and older men.
"These age differences seem to be almost exactly the same whether it’s a marital relationship or whether it’s a casual, pre-marital relationship," he says. "We show that it’s something like a quarter (25%) of the current relationships that young women are in are with men who are ten years or more older than themselves."
Dr. Gregson says the reasons for these relationships are both economic and cultural, stemming from a society where polygamy was once widespread. He says statistics show that there is a very high risk of the teenage girls being infected with the AIDS virus by these men.
He says, "What you have is that the men are having quite a few casual relationships from their late teens onwards. So that by they time they’ve gotten to their mid-twenties or early thirties, they’ve already accumulated very high numbers of sexual partners. So, they’ve got a very high chance that they’ve had relationships with women who are already infected and that they’ve become infected themselves. So, when you look at the figures in Zimbabwe, men in their late twenties, thirties you’re talking about thirty to forty percent of those men already being HIV positive. If the young women are forming partnerships with those slightly older men, they are very likely to be having a partnership with somebody who is already infected with HIV."
He says while many condoms are being distributed in Manicaland, there is still resistance to their use, especially among young men.
Dr. Gregson says many of the young women who become pregnant pass the virus along to their newborns. He says the effect on Zimbabwe’s population growth can already be seen.
"It seems quite likely that the population growth rate for the country, particularly for these areas, is likely to come down from three or four percent per annum ten years ago down to something close to zero or even slightly negative around about the current time and for the next four or five years," he says.
The research findings appear in the British medical magazine The Lancet. (