Kenya's university students - the brightest of their generation - do not consistently use condoms, a new study conducted in Maseno University, in western Kenya, has found.
The knowledge, attitudes and sexual practices study, published in the latest edition of the East African Medical Journal, found that just 15.8 percent of sexually active students said they used condoms every time they had sex, dwarfed by the 22.5 percent who reported never having used a condom. Around 77 percent said they had used protection at one time or other.
"It is notable that although students recognise the importance of condom use, a larger majority are still not using them consistently," the authors said. The survey sampled 500 undergraduates on the university campus.
David Aliwa, a second year student at the University of Nairobi, says he and his girlfriend only used condoms the first two weeks of their sexual relationship. They stopped because they felt they trusted each other not to sleep with other people.
"For me, having sex without a condom is a sign of trust that you have built between you and your lover," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "It is the only way you can prove that you can be trusted and that you trust too."
"I want to assume I am the only one she is seeing," he added.
Complacency creeps in when couples become comfortable with each other, says Jennifer Liku, a research associate at the NGO, Family Health International (FHI) http://www.fhi.org, which is running an HIV/AIDS and reproductive health programme at the University of Nairobi in partnership with I Choose Life Africa http://ichooselife.or.ke, a peer education NGO.
"Just like it happens in the general population, students in relationships experience a false sense of trust and this makes them abandon condom use after a short period in the relationship," she said.
Brigit Cheruiyot, 22, says her main concern at the University of Nairobi is not sexually transmitted infections, but ensuring that she does not fall pregnant.
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"We are lucky because there are emergency pills that can prevent pregnancy," she said. "Even if my boyfriend wants us to have sex without a condom, I am not bothered because I can run to the chemist and just pick some for myself."
The study at Maseno University also found that 17 percent of students reported having multiple sexual partners. Some of the reasons given included peer pressure, adventure, drug and substance abuse and increased involvement in transactional sex among students.
"I need somebody to hold my hand when we are on campus and I also need another 'loaded' [wealthy] one to provide for my material needs," said Cheruiyot, adding that she does not insist on condom use with either partner in order to ward off the suspicion that she is two-timing them.
Aware of the health risks she has been running, Cheruiyot says she is too afraid to take an HIV test.
Need for education outside the curriculum
FHI and I Choose Life Africa are jointly running a programme to sensitise students on HIV/AIDS and reproductive health; according to Liku, educating students on the correct use of emergency contraception could improve condom use among students.
"There is a need to sensitise them to realise that emergency contraception cannot be used as a regular, long-term measure to avoid pregnancy," she said. "Addressing stigma around condom use and promoting it among students and the youth is necessary."
Mike Mutungi, the chief executive officer of I Choose Life Africa, says that condom dispensers on campus should be moved to less public areas in order to encourage more students to use them.
"There should also be an emphasis on promoting condoms both as a contraceptive and as a protection against HIV," he added.
Kenya's national AIDS strategy identifies the youth as a "most at-risk population". The latest United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS country progress report notes that the national condom strategy is being revised to give attention to distribution to youth in tertiary education institutions.