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Persuading Teens that Abstinence ili che

By Melissa Hendricks

How can you make abstinence look cool to a 16-year-old boy? The question has life-or-death consequences in Zambia, where 16 percent of the population has HIV.

To find out, communication specialists from Hopkins and the Zambia Integrated Health Program formed an advisory group of youth, and asked those adolescents to create messages for a campaign aimed at reducing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Specialists then turned their ideas into a series of television and radio messages, posters, and school and community activities called the “Helping Each Other Act Responsibly Together” campaign, or HEART. 

One TV spot opens with a young man declaring, “I don’t want to be a father yet.” Several other boys voice their reasons for remaining abstinent, including: “I want to finish school,” “I want to fulfill my dreams,” “I want to follow God’s commandments.” A narrator concludes, “Be proud. Abstinence ili che.” (Abstinence is cool.)  

Another spot directed at young women concludes with the message: Say no to sex. Virgin power, virgin pride. The campaign also included TV spots that urge teenagers who have decided to have sex to use condoms. The message: Play hard. Have a good time. When love is in the picture, use a condom.

Since its launch in 1999, HEART has released several sets of television ads, each running for about six months. A recent follow-up survey of the most recent phase showed that youth who had seen the ads were 70 percent more likely to report that they were practicing abstinence than youth who had not seen the ads. Among sexually active respondents, those who had seen the ads were more likely than non-viewers to say they used a condom at their last sexual encounter. But overall, more viewers said they chose abstinence rather than condom use as a result of the TV campaign.

The campaign was successful because it featured themes, music, language and images that are relevant to adolescents, says Jane Brown, a senior program officer from the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs, which helped develop and evaluate HEART. Another factor in its success, she suspects, was that it gave support to teens who felt they weren’t ready to have sex—perhaps a fairly large number. “We really started to position abstinence among youth as a social norm.”