The challenge of raising teens in AIDS-ravaged South Africa
Thabang Thimbela's foster parents struggle to guide him and his foster sister Bulelwa through the temptations of adolescence.
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"Thabang, do you have a girlfriend?" asks Ms. Lolwane, during a recent counseling session.Skip to next paragraph
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"Did you have sexual intercourse with that girl?"
She sighs. She has no idea if she is getting through to the kids, she says, because many of them are older and ill-behaved and repeating grades or dropping out. She eyes Thabang. "But this one, he's always shy. He doesn't speak in class. Even though he has problems he doesn't come to me," she says.
The brainy girl
Compared with her older foster brother, 14-year-old Bulelwa would seem to be far from making any decision having to do with sex, protected or otherwise.
In class, she sits toward the front. At home, she hits the books and helps her siblings with their homework.
At lunch, and after school, she hangs out with a small clique of strong, assertive, academically minded girls. For these girls, boys always hover, but they never seem to have anything intelligent to say.
But statistically, a 14-year-old South African like Bulelwa is not out of the danger zone for HIV. The prevalence of HIV among 15- to 19-year-olds nationwide, according to the latest government study, is around 13 percent.
A separate study of youths aged 14 to 28 in the South African city of East London, conducted by the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research, found that one out of five male students had had 11 or more partners, and 20 percent of this number had taken no precautions against HIV infection the last time they had had sex. Their behavior was not the result of ignorance; 93 percent of respondents in the survey said they had been taught about HIV, and 83 percent said they knew someone infected with HIV.
Speaking with her Life Orientation teacher, Thabitha Mabatha, Bulelwa says there is no way she is going to fall prey to peer pressure or premarital sex. Bulelwa wants to be a lawyer or a pilot, not a pregnant school dropout.
Young girls who have sex "are not serious about life," Bulelwa says, and "the parents are spoiling them."
Bulelwa's friends' eyes roll when she talks like this, but Bulelwa is not just repeating what her teachers want to hear.
As an orphan, Bulelwa has learned to grow up fast and look after her own interests. "I want to tell them [her girlfriends] that they must not depend upon their parent, because when their parent passes away, there's no way that they can get the things that they were getting from their parent."
Ms. Mabatha, says that it's common now for kids to start having sex by age 14. "When I was in Grade 8 ... we were not so mature, we were just playing, and, you know, we used to study," says Mabatha. Society, she says, has "changed a lot. A lot. Our children will not be like us."
The parental burden
The past year has been good for Bulelwa's foster parents, Olga and Pontsho. Pontsho has found work as a security guard, a job that keeps him away from home most nights, but brings in much-needed money. Olga has found enough house-keeping work to keep her busy throughout the week.
For the first time in years, there is plenty of food, enough clothing for the children, and the family hopes to save up to pay the deposit required for hooking up their shack up to the electricity pole outside their gate.
Their biggest concern now is wisely guiding their oldest foster children. They know Thabang has a girlfriend. They worry that Bulelwa may get sidetracked by the same temptations that have brought down many.