Sexual activity among street children in Kigali

A recent survey of street children living in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, has shown that most of them are interested in learning more about HIV/AIDS, said Johns Hopkins University, which conducted the survey in conjunction with an association caring for the children - the Myboboh Club. The median age of the interviewed children - 238 in all - was 13 years, ranging from six to 20. Most of them - 184 - were male, while 54 were female. Over half of those interviewed had lost both parents, and 13 percent had one parent.

Just over half the boys and over three-quarters of the girls interviewed reported having had sex. A full 35 percent of those under 10 were found to be sexually active.

Awareness among the children was found to be higher regarding AIDS than any other sexually transmitted disease (STD), with gonorrhoea and syphilis coming second and third. Almost all of the children (over 97 percent) were aware of at least one infection that could be transmitted sexually, and almost one-third of the boys and 10 percent of the girls reported having experienced one symptom of an STD. A full 11 percent of those aged under 10 reported having experienced one symptom of an STD.

In general, knowledge about HIV/AIDS was found to be good: a total of 92 percent of boys and 96 percent of girls knew that it was possible to prevent HIV infection. Sexual abstinence, followed by condom use, were the best-known methods.

However, only one-third of the sexually active boys and 8 percent of their female counterparts reported being capable of procuring a condom if necessary.

Condom usage was found to be very low, with only 36 percent of boys and 23.8 percent of girls reporting having used a condom. Only 4.3 percent of boys and 2.3 percent of girls reported using a condom all or most of the time they were having sex over the previous 12 months. Reasons for not using condoms included the following: did not think of using one (30 percent), condom not available (25 percent), condom too expensive (22 percent) and partner against use of condom (8 percent).

A total of 98 percent of girls and 72 percent of boys reported knowing a person living with HIV or who had died of AIDS. Interestingly, girls were more likely to perceive themselves to be at risk from HIV - at just over two-thirds, with 56.4 percent of boys thinking the same. On a similar note, more interest in gaining information about HIV/AIDS was found among girls (98 percent) than boys (85.7 percent).

The incidence of rape was found to be high: 63 percent of the boys reported having forced a girl to have sex with them, while 93 percent of the girls reported having been forced by either a boy or man. All the sexually active girls and 91 percent of the sexually active boys reported knowing someone who had been raped.

The average number of sex partners among the children was also found to be high. During the previous six months, the average number for boys was 2.9 and for girls 2.1. Among those who practised sports, the average number for boys was 2.7, while among those who did not the average was 3.8. On a similar note, the proportion of sexually active boys was 49 percent among those who practised sports, compared to 63 percent among their counterparts who did not.

Only 11.5 percent of the boys and 13 percent of the girls reported having used condoms or other forms of contraceptives with the specific objective of preventing pregnancy, as opposed to a means of protecting themselves from HIV or other STDs.

A total of 12.6 percent of the boys and 14.8 percent of the girls reported having engaged in homosexual relations.

Significantly, more boys (almost 30 percent) than girls (less than 4 percent) reported working for a living - mainly doing tasks such as haulage, car washing, petty trading and rubbish collection.

Nutritional status was found to be affected by this: while over 80 percent of girls said they only had one meal per day, 68.5 percent of boys said the same. Age, in turn, was found to play a role in determining nutritional status: 87 percent of children aged between six and 10 reported eating once per day, with 77 percent of those between 11 and 14, and only 56 percent of those over 15.

None of the children interviewed were currently attending school, and two-thirds had never attended school. Most of those who had attended school said they had completed less than four years at primary level.

The report issued by the Johns Hopkins University describes the street children as being "a high-risk population", characterised by early sexual experimentation, multiple sex partners, unprotected sex, drug abuse and poor nutrition.

Recommendations to those wishing to help are the following: the inclusion of an income-generation component in any project, information about STDs and the dangers of unprotected sex, and the development of life skills, including sexual negotiation, priority setting, and identifying the immediate and long-term consequences of chosen courses of action.

The information was sought from the children between 28 January and 15 February 2001. The results were published in March 2002.