The Influence of Peer Relationships on Young People's Sexual Health in Sub-Saharan African Street Contexts

Janine Hunter, Lorraine van Blerk, Wayne Shand

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper explores the interaction between peer relationships and sexual health among street youth in three Sub-Saharan African cities: Accra (Ghana), Bukavu (Democratic Republic of Congo), and Harare (Zimbabwe). It begins by conceptualising peer relationships for youth globally and considers why these are pivotal for young people living in street settings. The paper reconceptualizes street peer relationships not as replacement families, but as sharing ‘social anchorage’ in the street space. It draws on qualitative ethnographic data from Growing up on the Streets, a longitudinal research project with a participatory methodology undertaken between 2012 and 2016 and engaging street youth (aged 14–20 at project outset) trained in ethnographic observations as research assistants (n = 18), following a network of ten peers (n = 229 by 2016), reporting their experiences in weekly interviews with facilitators. A wider network attended focus groups (n = 399). The project engaged a ‘capability’ approach, with ten capabilities defined by street youth as key to their daily lives. Empirical evidence is from a subset of data qualitatively coded (using NVivo) against capabilities ‘Health and Wellbeing’ and ‘Friendship’, across all interviews, focus groups and cities (n = 212 sources). In exploring this intersection, the paper demonstrates beneficial and adverse impacts of peer influence on sexual health, including misinformation about contraceptives and death from an informal sector abortion; highlighting findings from across the three cities around primacy of same-sex peer relations, mistrust between genders and in healthcare providers. The paper finds that while street youth remain subject to cultural norms around gender identities, street peer relationships hold a persuasive power; contributing to both everyday survival and moments of acute need. It concludes that recognising the right of young people to live and seek livelihoods in urban settings, and adopting the social networks they create to advance street youth's sexual health has become even more relevant in a (post)pandemic world.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113285
Pages (from-to)113285
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Early online date14 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020


  • Peer influence
  • Peer relationships
  • Sexual health
  • Sexual relationships
  • Social anchorage
  • Social networks
  • Street youth
  • Sub-Saharan Africa

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute


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