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Silver Ring Thing tells teens it's cool to wait until marriage

By unknown | Nov 30, 2006 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Rebecca Harrison

Rebecca Harrison

Hip-hop anthems pound, coloured lights flash and hundreds of teenagers scream when two young men stride on to the stage.

"We've come all the way to tell you guys how great sex can be," they yell into the microphone, drawing whoops of delight from the crowd gathered in Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg.

But they don't mean any old sex, they mean married sex. And this isn't a raunchy extravaganza for hormonal teens.

It's part of a drive to get millions of youngsters in Aids-hit South Africa to guard against HIV by vowing chastity.

The Christian-backed Silver Ring Thing abstinence campaign has already made headlines in the US and the UK by using savvy, multimedia shows to urge teenagers to shun sex until they get married.

Now South Africans have launched their own version, with a pragmatic but urgent goal - to help tackle one of the world's highest rates of HIV-Aids.

Andrew Serfontein, 23, a leader on the South African Silver Ring Thing team, said: "The need in South Africa is absolutely incredible. People are dying every day."

The movement has an unenviable remit - to make virginity cool and turn abstinence into a real choice for teens under pressure from peers and the media to have sex, and to start young.

After bombarding teenagers with slick video clips and skits about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and the emotional consequences of having sex, the team urges them to buy silver rings that symbolise a pledge to abstain until marriage.

"The world is saying everyone is doing sex," 22-year-old Dee Mokoka tells the teenagers.

"But that's a lie - I'm not doing it and you don't have to."

The movement says promoting contraception sends mixed messages. Its presentation is virulently anti-condom, usually the first weapon in Africa's war against Aids.

Team member Buck Matyila, 20, shouts during the show: "I'm sick of the word condom. Can a condom protect your heart? Can a condom protect your mind? Can a condom protect your virginity? So are condoms safe?"

"No!" yell the teenagers, as they snatch free T-shirts being hurled from the stage.

Many in South Africa question the wisdom of an abstinence only message in a country where one in nine people are infected with HIV.

Some people say it is both unrealistic and downright dangerous.

Aadielah Makur, who is senior manager of Soul Buddyz, a health education programme for children, said: "Young people are exposed to media that is very sexual. They are going through a developmental phase where they might want to experiment, and they need to know how to protect themselves.

"We wouldn't advocate an abstinence only programme."

After the rousing show, most teenagers at the event were eager to sign up for a ring.

But sceptics wonder how many actually stick to the vow, despite follow-up SMSes and e-mails.

Activists say campaigns that emphasise virginity risk piling guilt on those forced or coerced into sex, a serious problem in a country where older men often prey upon young girls.

But even critics of the Silver Ring Thing admit that despite the ABC, or Abstain, Be faithful, Condomise, message being touted throughout Africa to combat Aids, not enough emphasis has been placed on delaying sex, in South Africa at least.

Makur said: "There might have been an emphasis on condoms, but people have just been glib with the abstinence part.

"We need to help young people to unpack what it means to abstain and to delay their first sexual experience."

Elvis Mvulane, a Christian minister who runs the movement in South Africa, started preaching abstinence after scores of young people from his congregation in Soweto started dying of Aids-related illnesses.

When a minister friend called to talk about starting an abstinence programme, Mvulane said it was "like getting a phone call from God".

He argues that thousands of campaigns telling young people to wear a condom have failed and that if South Africans want to halt HIV and Aids and save the next generation, they must simply have less sex with fewer people.

Though the Silver Ring Thing has come under fire in the US for using tax dollars to promote evangelical Christianity, few in largely Christian South Africa fret about the religious content, especially if it yields results.

Mvulane said: "It is unreal to see parents burying their children. For us this was an intervention to stop our young people from dying."

Decked out in hipster jeans and funky accessories, Edwina van Rooyen, 15, and her friends chatter excitedly after the show while they wait to buy the simple silver ring they plan to wear until their wedding day.

"It is really difficult to abstain from sex, especially with all the peer pressure, but I do value my life and I wouldn't want to get HIV," Van Rooyen said. - Reuters


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