Pull out all the stops
Educators are in the business of imparting information. In the case of HIV and Aids, 2009 should be the year when we pull out all the stops.
We teach kids academic subjects so that they can pass an exam to study further and ultimately become functional adults. We teach them about HIV so that they will live beyond the age of 26; so that they will not suffer from unspeakable opportunistic diseases; so that they will not leave behind Aids orphans.
You may argue that they can be treated with antiretrovirals (ARVs) if they become infected. However this is not entirely true because in South Africa ARVs are available to only 28% of the people living with Aids. The rest will die.
Matric results are a means of assessing how successful we have been in educating learners. But Aids statistics tell us how little success we have had in protecting teenagers from HIV infection.
Are we really doing enough in our schools? Is too much expected of life orientation teachers or biology teachers who are left with the full responsibility of passing on information about HIV and Aids? Schools seldom have more than one qualified life orientation teacher and often other teachers have to step in to do a job for which they have no training.
Now and then a motivational speaker is invited. The reasoning is that information will do the trick.
But for information imparted from a life orientation teacher, one young boy may have been infected with the HIV virus. His mother’s boyfriend wanted to cement his link with the boy by means of a traditional ritual where the two cut themselves with a sharp knife.
The boy refused to be cut with the same knife as the man. He stood his ground even though the man was mad with rage and disappointment. The boy had every reason to believe the man was HIV positive because his mother had been infected.
Passing on HIV information, however vital to survival, is not a simple process. When does information kick in in such a way that it becomes part of our thinking? At what stage does that information crystallise into a decision to practice safe sex or to abstain?
Teenagers reach a stage when they begin to wean themselves of adult control and make their own decisions. One decision is whether to have sex. A norm exists, as it always does, and the majority will conform to that norm. In the context of HIV and Aids the existing norm is frightening. It is almost as if the norm gives you permission to have sex at an early age.
But a norm can be challenged. This happened at the annual Youth Programme for grade 11 learners, which was sponsored by Monash University in South Africa. Many learners who attended the programme come from a high HIV risk environment: townships in Dobsonville, Soweto and Tembisa.
Sister Ruth Loubser was the guest speaker. She reached her audience in a big way. Key to Sister Ruth’s style is that she doesn’t preach or prescribe but informs and entertains.
There is no question, however intimate, she will not answer and, as a trained sister and expert in her field, I doubt there is any question she is unable to answer.
She calls a spade a spade and a blow-job a blow-job. Sister Ruth pulls out all the stops. She arranges an array of models on a table that include a female condom and a “penis”.
The latter helps her to demonstrate how to use condoms safely and correctly. She has collected a fund of well-chosen visuals that sometimes have the audience in stitches or gasping with surprise or shock.
She spoke for two hours and in that time she held everyone spellbound. Sister Ruth is more than a motivational speaker - she gives her young listeners the tools to enable them to think for themselves and make their own decisions.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I read some of the statements from learners in the feedback forms. They were proof that young people can make life-changing decisions for themselves given the input that prompts such decisions. This is what some of the learners said:
I want to appeal to principals, parents and educators to suggest or, if that doesn’t work, demand HIV conferences for educators, during which people such as Sister Ruth can empower educators to shift the norm. Sister Ruth is just one of many who have worthwhile input to offer on HIV and Aids. Make it possible for teenagers to make well-informed decisions for themselves based on your input. It can be done.
Joan Dommisse is a former English teacher and an educator in the area of HIV/Aids. She conducts workshops with teenagers. She can be contacted on [email protected] or by phoning the Teacher on 011 250 7300