Sex talk gets complicated

2013-10-22 00:00

TEACH eight-year-olds about sex”; the Sowetan front-page headline was tantalising and I could not resist the desire to peruse the article.

After a five-minute reading frenzy, I knew that there was something not entirely right with what the article was proposing.

One would expect young girls of such an age to be playing hopscotch or double Dutch, and the boys to be kicking a ball, rather than focusing on adolescent hibbity bibbity. The article in the Sowetan, written by Petunia Ratsatsi, quoted Palesa Khambi of Marie Stopes SA as saying: “We recommend that as soon as they [young girls] start menstruating, they should get on contraceptives.”

The logic of Khambi’s argument seems obvious. It can be put loosely as follows: there is a high prevalence of teenage pregnancies. Teenagers do not have access to contraception. Therefore, teenagers must be allowed access to contraception. When we dare to look deeper, we can see that this is not an easy issue, in which giving or not giving contraceptives to our children can candidly and ethically be addressed.

On one hand, supposing we follow the argument of giving our teenagers contraceptives one wonders how that would address the root problem of what is happening in our society.

Giving minors condoms, intrauterine devices, pills and injections might be a short-term quick solution to the high prevalence of teenage pregnancies, but it cannot be an alternative to the teaching of the values embedded in abstinence and self-respect, especially for societies faced with the ravaging reality of HIV/Aids. That being said though, what must people like Khambi and other health workers in the field, who deal with the increasing number of teenagers already engaging in sexual activities, do? Should they withhold their contraceptives from teenagers who are in actual need, and continue the vicious cycle of ignorance, teenage pregnancy and disempowerment?

On the other hand, one should be wary of the way in which young teenagers are being taught about sex. While it is true that there are teenagers as young as 12 and 13 who are becoming pregnant, should we dish out contraceptives to all teenagers of the same age?

It can be debated that making these contraceptives available actually leads to teenagers having sex. However, it is not a secret that teenagers are highly experimental.

In the past, the fear of the possibility of becoming pregnancy was used to deter teenagers from sexual intercourse before marriage, but with the provision of contraception for all teenagers, will the teenagers continue to resist? The gist of the situation begs an important question at the centre of our society: how are we raising our children in the current information age that is riddled with social networks offering readily available information about sex and related issues at the click of a button?

The headline of the Sowetan read very well by saying that we need to teach our children, even the eight-year-olds, about sex. Does the teaching necessarily have to include the provision of contraceptives for all teenagers?

The problem of the high pregnancy prevalence among teenagers is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. Other countries in our region, especially Zimbabwe, are currently engaged with this issue. There is a lot of research to be done regarding the interests of some of these good Samaritan providers of contraception who seem to be expanding their market should our children opt for these contraceptives.

One wonders if there are no side effects to these products, especially for the proposed young users.

Yet society cannot ignore the high prevalence of teenage pregnancies and the implications of abortion. We cannot ignore the many sexual predators who impregnate young teenagers either through rape, manipulation or abuse. The onus is on all parents, uncles, aunts, social workers and peer educators to address this issue openly.

More debate discussions are imperative because it is clear that the question of whether to give or not to give contraceptives to children as young as 10 and 12 is only but a snippet of a bigger, exigent and complex reality.

• Mike Mware is a postgraduate student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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