In South Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic, young people, especially women, are at high risk due to an apparent gap between awareness and practice. In repeated peergroup discussions with girls aged 14–15 and boys aged 16–19, we explored influences on safe sex behaviour. Separate male and female safe sex paradigms emerged, with boys less likely to perceive themselves as ‘at risk’ and more likely to use condoms. Girls had not used condoms, would have preferred to delay sexual relationships and feared pregnancy as well as HIV/AIDS. Both sexes deemed it difficult for girls to initiate condom use, although both sexes viewed condoms favourably. Girls saw condoms as a sign of love and protection, whereas boys tended to use them with casual partners. A lack of decision-making autonomy within relationships further constrained girls' ability to practice safer sex. Involvement of peer participants in review of their own narrative data helped to ensure representation of participants' voices in the findings. Overall, these findings point to the need for programmes to address gender inequalities and emphasise behavioural skills in the years before sexual activity begins.
Reproductive Health Matters (2001) 9 (17) 63-71 [doi:10.1016/S0968-8080(01)90009-6]