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Economic support helps girls say no to transactional sex

Adolescent girls in Zambia say the RISE trial helped them say no to transactional sex and stay in school but also led to a backlash

Adolescent girls in rural Zambia who took part in RISE, an economic support scheme, say it helped them stay in school and feel less pressured to have sex for money or gifts.

The study among 14-17-year-old girls who took part in RISE suggests parents, caregivers and many community members also felt good about the scheme. But there was a negative reaction from some, particularly from adolescent boys when their sexual advances were rejected.

The RISE trial operated between 2016 and 2018 in Zambia’s Southern and Central Provinces. These areas have high levels of poverty, and many adolescent girls engage in transactional sex and leave school due to early pregnancy and marriage.

During RISE, adolescent girls had their school fees paid and were also given writing materials and a monthly unconditional grant of K30 (US$3). Their parents also got an unconditional yearly grant of K350 (US$35). Girls attended youth clubs that provided sexual and reproductive health education, and their parents went to similar meetings. This study looked at the impact of the economic support received.

Researchers interviewed 48 adolescent girls from six schools in Mazabuka, Monze and Pemba, three rural districts in Southern Province. All had participated in RISE.

Participants said RISE had helped them feel more assertive, more able to focus on their education and ignore bad advice.

They welcomed the RISE money because they were free to use it in any way they wanted. This led to some rejecting sexual relationships in exchange for cash and gifts. But others continued to have boyfriends who would give them money.

Most participants felt encouraged to continue with their education and reported attending school more.

Interviewees said before RISE their parents or caregivers had been more supportive of boys’ education, as girls were more likely to get married early and leave school. But most participants said these attitudes had changed due to RISE. They now held the view that girls continuing with their education would enable them to work to support themselves and their families.

Participants said most people they knew, for example grandparents and other community members, were happy with the support they got from RISE and had encouraged them to focus on their education.

But some reported negative incidents linked to RISE’s economic support.

Participants said it led to some friends, especially adolescent boys, insulting them. Some boys had offered to give them more money than RISE and had become angry when their sexual proposals were rejected. They accused participants of being ‘too proud’ and accepting ‘evil’ money from RISE.

Some community members had accused participants of being sex workers and also linked the money to Satanism. There was also envy from other young people who could not afford to go to school or adults who could not afford to send their own children.

Some ways to avoid these negative reactions include having a clear and effective strategy for communicating with all groups in the community, and forming a local committee so the selection of programme participants is seen as community-led.

Negativity can also be addressed by ensuring all vulnerable adolescents and their families access economic support.

Further interviews to hear the perspectives of parents, caregivers, the girls’ sexual partners and other community members affected by RISE would be valuable.

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