Why our kids need sex ed

2012-11-10 13:15

Dismissing young people’s curiosity about their bodies simply exacerbates

I have been listening to friends and colleagues debating the government’s plan to supply condoms along with other contraceptives and HIV counselling and testing at schools.

I’ve become more convinced than ever that some parents and guardians are frightened by the idea simply because they don’t have enough information.

Frankly, I don’t blame them.

I would feel the same way if I’d heard about government’s new programme through half-baked news stories that don’t explain why my child needs to know about family planning or preventing sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV.

Truth be told, no parent wants to admit their young daughter or son is having sex.

But the reality is that children as young as 10 in South Africa are having sex, falling pregnant and are contracting HIV in the process.

This isn’t scaremongering: it’s the frightening truth.

The latest annual antenatal survey, released in November last year, showed that 9.1% of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 who fell pregnant in 2010 were HIV positive.

That figure climbed to 14% in girls aged between 14 and 19.

Initially, I was shocked by these figures. But then I remembered we record, on average, more than 80 000 teenage pregnancies every year.

Statistics like that don’t lie. Our children clearly need protection, and if that can be provided by professionals in a safe environment in school, I say let’s educate children and offer services to those who clearly need them.

Government’s integrated school health programme is not about our cultural or religious beliefs or how we were brought up donkey’s years ago, but about empowering our children to protect themselves when they decide to have sex.

Very few children, if any, would ask their parents for permission to have sex or even tell them if they were sexually active. But studies have shown that many would tell a stranger whom they believe is not judgmental.

Many have argued that supplying schoolchildren with condoms and educating girls about contraceptives will encourage them to have sex, but I beg to differ.

Preaching abstinence has not stopped South Africa’s children from having sex.

In fact, judging by the annual increase in teenage pregnancy statistics in the past five years, the more abstinence messages are aired on television and radio, the more the Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber generation want to experiment with sex.

Last year alone, 94 000 schoolgirls fell pregnant, and there were 77 000 abortions at government clinics in the same period, of which 30% were for under-18s. Nobody knows how many others fell pregnant and had backstreet abortions.

Abortion appears to be the new form of contraceptive among the young and old in this country and HIV is largely to blame for that.

At the pandemic’s peak circa 2004, government abandoned family planning messages and concentrated on abstinence and condom use, forgetting that not all people have the power to say no or to negotiate safe sex.

We are seeing the result of this decision today, with young girls having no idea what contraception is and the only way they know how to prevent themselves from having babies is by having abortions.

The school health programme aims to correct such mistakes. The message of abstinence will remain at the forefront but will be accompanied by contraceptives and condom use.

Government has assured parents and guardians it will not line up kids and give them condoms. The services will only be offered to children who need it and who are at risk.

Parents and school governing bodies will have to decide if they want these services offered in their children’s schools, but these discussions are yet to take place, which is why most people are probably confused by this initiative.

Few people actually know the programme will offer a variety of other basic services such as eye care, oral care, nutritional assessment, mental health, hearing problems and immunisation.

Sexual and reproductive health services will only be offered from Grade 7. But grades R to 6 learners will be educated about different forms of abuse, including sexual assault and bullying.

A little sensitisation about the programme and why the country needs it before it was implemented last month would have gone a long way had the powers that be taken that initiative.

But, as always, the South African government plans something, launches it and only then asks the people who are affected for public comment.

The message then gets lost in translation and critics hijack it, as has happened in this case.

 

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