Journal Article

Sexual debut and risk behaviors among orphaned and vulnerable children in Zambia: Which protective deficits shape HIV risk?

Orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) are not only affected by, but also rendered at-risk of, HIV due to overlapping deficits in protective assets, from school to household financial security. Drawing from a protective deficit framework, this study examines correlates of sexual risk – including multiple sexual partnerships, unprotected sex, and age at sexual debut – among OVC aged 13–17 years in Zambia. In May-October 2016, a two-stage stratified random sampling design was used to recruit OVC and their adult caregivers (N = 2,034) in four provinces. OVC-caregiver dyads completed a structured interview addressing household characteristics, protective assets (i.e. finances, schooling, and nutrition), and general health and wellbeing. Associations of factors derived from the multi-component protective deficits framework were examined using multivariable ordered logistic regression, comparing sexually inexperienced OVC to those with a sexual debut and reporting ≥1 sexual behavior(s). A sub-analysis of older (ages 15–17) OVC identified correlates of early (before age 15) and later (at or after age 15) sexual debut using multinomial logistic regression. Among 735 OVC aged 13–17, 14% reported a sexual debut, among whom 14% and 22% reported 2+ past-year partners and non-condom last sex, respectively. Older age (Adjusted Odds Ratio [aOR] = 2.08, 95% Confidence Interval [CI] 1.32–3.27), male sex (aOR = 1.90, CI 1.22–2.96), not having a birth certificate (aOR = 2.05, CI 1.03–4.09), out-of-school status (aOR = 2.63, CI 1.66–4.16), and non-household labor (aOR = 1.84, CI 1.01–3.38) were significantly associated with higher sexual risk. Male sex was the only factor significantly associated with early sexual debut in multivariable analysis. Sexual risk-reduction strategies require age- and sex-specific differentiation and should be prioritized for OVC in financially distressed households.