Learners’ opinions cannot be dismissed or ignored; their agency must be protected when implementing the policy on condoms in schools
Every week, about 1 200 South African girls aged 15 to 24 fall victim to HIV.
This alarming statistic was reported at the ninth South African Aids Conference held in Durban recently.
There was also a discussion on the department of basic education’s policy on HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and TB, and its role in preventing new HIV infections among learners. On the face of it, the policy allows learners access to condoms at school.
This idea, however, remains unthinkable for many South Africans, too taboo to mention or, if discussed, associated with the corruption of young minds and the encouragement of adolescent promiscuity.
These erroneous beliefs have been at the root of heated public contestation since the 2017 implementation of the policy – one that recognises the endemic proportions that HIV infections have reached and aims to tackle them through the education sector.
Moral indignation, based on the idea that the availability of condoms in schools will see an increase in adolescent sexual activity, does not hold up against rigorous enquiry.
Research from various corners of the world verifies the positive effects of having condoms in schools. Comparative studies show that school-based sex education and condom availability do not increase sexual activity among adolescents.
Instead, the availability of condoms in schools has seen already sexually active adolescents increasingly practise safe sex.
The department is therefore strategically placed to assist in combating the spread of HIV and STIs by enabling learners to make healthy life choices – a unique position it appears to appreciate.
The policy states that curbing the spread of these diseases will be achieved through comprehensive sex education, with appropriate learning materials provided.
Curriculum topics include contraception, unwanted pregnancies and termination of pregnancy services.
Teachers will be trained to impart this knowledge in an empathic and non-judgemental way.
Crucially, the policy says that learners over 12 years should be given access to condoms.
But, the success of the policy is undermined by senseless flaws contained in the document, which create barriers to learners accessing condoms in school.
According to the policy, condoms will only be available through an authority figure on school premises, meaning learners who would like to access these condoms can only do so under the watchful eye of an adult; the same eyes from which learners fear judgement, shame and admonishment.
Learners’ reluctance to obtain contraceptives where an adult is involved in distribution is illustrated by local research.
The Constitutional Court has said that the way consenting adolescents give expression to their sexuality is part of the core of their right to privacy.
The compulsory presence of an adult “gatekeeper” to access condoms is an intrusion on the intimate space between consenting adolescents and an invasion of that right.
This is not to suggest, however, that teachers, parents, healthcare professionals and communities do not have an active role to play in ensuring that learners’ stay HIV- and STI-free and that schoolgirls’ risk of pregnancy is drastically mitigated.
Adult involvement in realising learners’ sexual and reproductive health rights must, however, help and not hinder. Requiring interaction with healthcare providers as a condition for condom access in schools is not just ineffective, it is simply unrealistic.
It is alarming that the policy contemplates that learners will, “in the short term”, access condoms under mechanisms established by the Integrated School Health Programme (ISHP).
The ISHP requires that school health services be administered by a health professional or “suitable person”.
However, the department of health acknowledges that there are an extremely limited number of healthcare professionals to successfully implement the ISHP and that a lack of reliable transport for them compounds the problem.
Rural areas in particular are affected by these challenges, as distances and terrain make travelling to schools difficult, resulting in learners being unable to access condoms due to a very small pool of local health professionals who cannot even reach them.
This leaves learners with, at best, intermittent access to condoms.
Stats SA figures show that learner pregnancy is already most acute in rural provinces.
In 2015, a reported 85 349 schoolgirls over the age of 13 years were pregnant.
Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape had the highest incidences of learner pregnancy, with each of them accounting for over 14 000 learner pregnancies.
The flaws in the current policy affect rural schoolgirls most severely.
Even as an interim measure, however, requiring adult involvement in condom distribution through the use of health practitioners will not suffice.
The policy on HIV, STIs and TB makes provision for the manner in which condoms are to be stored, managed and distributed.
It states access will be “informed by the local context” of each school. It is unclear whether this means the inclusion of school governing bodies in distribution.
This would be concerning as governing bodies may use this to frustrate learners’ access.
What is needed are unmonitored condom dispensers in strategic places, such as school bathrooms, to give learners easy and discreet access.
In-depth and continuing localised research on the effectiveness of condom distribution and other HIV prevention programmes in schools is also a must.
This research should be made publically available.
The voices of the constituency for whom the policy was developed and that it most directly affects should not be forgotten.
Learners can provide invaluable insight to help the basic education department adapt or formulate a more effective approach to achieving the policy’s aims.
South African and international law requires that children’s opinions on matters affecting them be taken seriously.
Condom distribution in schools is a matter of life and death. Learner’s opinions cannot be dismissed or ignored and their agency must be protected.
Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize, speaking ahead of the 2019 Aids Conference, stated: “We all know now that the problem of HIV and Aids is not getting less in South Africa. It is still a big problem that needs us to stand up as society as a whole.”
As a first and relatively easy step in achieving this stand, the department of basic education must amend its policy to ensure that unmonitored condom dispensers are provided in strategic spaces in schools, located within easy and judgement-free reach of learners.
It is only through doing so that the policy can provide real protection for those it claims to protect.
Draga is a constitutional law lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and Gcilitshana is parliamentary officer for Equal Education
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