Let's talk about sex, babies

2018-01-21 05:46

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Telling nine- to 12-year-olds about erections, asking young teens why pornography is so common and teaching them that they have the right to “be in control of what they will and will not do sexually”.

Those issues were on the table when the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and several African countries, including South Africa, got together to talk about sex.

Last Saturday the department of basic education, Unesco and the Swedish government hosted a high-level policy dialogue on comprehensive sexuality education, attended by delegates from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Swaziland, South Africa, Namibia and Sweden.

This followed last week’s release of an international guidance report on comprehensive sexuality education aimed at helping governments develop an evidence-based and human rights-focused approach to sex education.

“Governments and the education sector in sub-Saharan Africa have both an opportunity and urgent responsibility to scale up sexuality education,” said Unesco east Africa regional director Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta.

“Young people should have no need to be cynical of this type of education in the classroom. They should see it as their right to know, as their right to engage.

“Governments need to look at this issue beyond education and knowledge. It is a right. This is the empowerment that young people are looking for,” Ndong-Jatta said.

“Young people will have sex. It is up to us to make sure they are ready for that responsibility and can protect themselves.”

Feminists and civil society activists around the world have been pushing for improved sex education that extends beyond simply “be wise, condomise” or, worse still, failed abstinence campaigns or pictures of putrefied genitals rife with sexually transmitted diseases.

Unesco’s guidance report – the first of its kind in almost a decade – might be the answer to those calls.

The guidance report includes definitions of various sex-related terms, ranging from “heteronormativity” – the belief that heterosexuality is the normal or default sexual orientation – to “transphobia”, or “the fear, discomfort, intolerance or hatred of transgender people”.

"Challenge one’s own and others’ gender biases"

The report explores a variety of key concepts, topics and learning objectives that should be included in sex education for different age groups. In the section Understanding Gender, the report includes as key ideas that “gender stereotypes can be harmful” and “it is important to challenge one’s own and others’ gender biases”.

Issues of consent, privacy and bodily integrity are discussed at length under Violence and Staying Safe, with a key idea for children between 12 and 15 that:

“Everyone has the right to be in control of what they will and will not do sexually and should actively communicate and recognise consent from their partners.”

The same age group is encouraged to explore why pornography is so common, why and how it can be potentially harmful and where to get help.

Nine- to 12-year-olds, on the other hand, should learn that “young men can experience erections, either due to arousal or for no particular reason” and adolescents “may experience arousal and the release of fluids at night, often called a wet dream”, and that these are normal experiences of growing up.

This age group is encouraged to learn about the “sexual response cycle”, whereby mental or physical sexual stimulation can produce a physical response.

Pregnancy, contraception, HIV/Aids and sexually transmitted infections make up only one of eight sections of the Comprehensive Sexuality Education guidance document.

The basic education department committed to provide an “age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to sexuality and relationships and to provide scientifically accurate, practical information in a nonjudgmental way”, according to a joint statement released by Unesco, the Swedish government and the basic education department.

Granville Whittle, deputy director-general of the basic education department, represented South Africa at the dialogue.

“South Africa is more advanced than other African countries.

"We’re leading in this area of sex education, but we still want to play a greater role in improving the status of sex education here.”

In South Africa sex education falls under the curriculum for life orientation in schools.

“The status of the subject is poor and we know some schools don’t even teach the life orientation curriculum and instead use the time for other things, as only a fraction of life orientation is examinable. We plan to change that,” Whittle said.

“In the long term, we hope to make up to 75% of life orientation examinable.”

He said life orientation textbooks were poor and did not reflect the scope of Unesco’s sex education guidance report.

For this reason, the basic education department was developing its own new textbooks to accompany the curriculum.

"Young people need better education"

Unesco regional adviser Xavier Hospital emphasised the importance of sex education for growing youth populations in Africa.

“Young people need better education and they need better public health measures. That will be hugely beneficial for their development.

In the joint statement and at last Saturday’s dialogue, Unesco drew attention to the continent’s worrying HIV/Aids statistics and the gender gap that discriminated against women and girls.

UN figures show that 78% of the world’s youth living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Hospital said across countries in southern and eastern Africa only 30% to 60% of young people (between the ages of 15 and 24) had comprehensive knowledge about HIV.

Hospital emphasised that gender inequality and gender-based violence remain a serious concern across Africa.

“Girls have a consistently lower knowledge of HIV and Aids across Africa, but are more likely to be affected by HIV,” he said.

“This is linked to the fact that in some African countries girls still have less access to education than boys.”

Among the matters addressed in the guidance document is education about and tolerance of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community.

Although the guidance document addresses the difficulties the community faces, as well as their human rights, of the five African countries attending the dialogue, only South Africa legally recognises and protects LGBTI people.

Homosexuality is completely outlawed in Ghana and in March last year two gay men were jailed for three months under a public indecency law in Ivory Coast.

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Read more on:    unesco  |  health

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