Attending school may have a strong preventative association with sexually transmitted infections among young women, but the mechanism for this relationship is unknown. One hypothesis is that students who attend school practice safer sex with fewer partners, establishing safer sexual networks that make them less exposed to infection.
We used longitudinal data from a randomized controlled trial of young women aged 13–20 years in the Bushbuckridge district, South Africa, to determine whether the percentage of school days attended, school dropout, and grade repetition are associated with having a partner 5 or more years older (age–disparate) and with the number of sexual partners in the previous 12 months.
Risks of having an age-disparate relationship and number of sexual partners were compared using inverse probability of exposure weighted Poisson regression models. Generalized estimating equations were used to account for repeated measures.
Young women who attended fewer school days (<80%) and who dropped out of school were more likely to have an age–disparate relationship (risk difference 9.9%, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 3.9% to 16.0%; risk difference (%) dropout 17.2%, 95% CI: 5.4% to 29.0%) and those who dropped out reported having fewer partners (count difference dropout 0.343, 95% CI: 0.192 to 0.495). Grade repetition was not associated with either behavior.
Young women who less frequently attend school or who drop out are more likely to have an age-disparate relationship. Young women who drop out have overall more partners. These behaviors may increase the risk of exposure to HIV infection in young women out of school.