The HPV vaccine roll-out is prompting parents to rethink how they talk to children about sex.
Thami Mayo remembers how he used to “talk nonsense” with his “mates” in the school toilets in standard seven [grade nine] in the rural homeland school he attended in the 1980s.
The teenage boys, at times, would also take turns looking at each other’s penises. “Under my foreskin there were whitish dirt particles and when my mates saw this they said to me ‘Hurry, you need to get a girl quickly or you will go mad; those dirt particles will run to your head!’” His deep voice is breaking as he shakes his head laughing. “Also, if you got pimples on your face they would tease you and say this is a sign; your body is thirsty for sex,” he recalls. “When you’re a child and don’t know otherwise you end up believing it.”
Twenty-five years later Mayo teaches children in grades four and seven at Thamagane Primary School in Bloemhof in the North West province. He’s also father to a nine-year-old girl, Mamello. She’s exactly the same age as the grade four children he teaches and he knows what they know – and don’t know – about sex. “But, funny enough, I feel more comfortable speaking to the pupils in my classroom about sex. I can’t see myself discussing the issue with my own child,” he sighs.
However, a recent school event forced Mayo to talk to Mamello about sex in a drastically different way from the way he was introduced to it in his teenage years. In March, along with 50 other grade four children at her school, his daughter was vaccinated against the sexually transmitted Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer. It caught the school’s parents unaware: they had to broach the subject of sex with their daughters, as they had to explain to them why they were getting vaccinated against a virus that’s mostly contracted through sex.
Research has shown cervical cancer is the most deadly type of cancer for South African women. This is why the national health department has decided to provide the vaccine free of charge to all grade four girls, before they become sexually active. The government’s 2010 antenatal HIV prevalence survey shows that girls as young as 10 are having sex.
Sex topics are still “taboo”
Mamello’s school, Gonyane Primary School in Phahameng, a township outside of Bloemfontein, was the first one to receive the HPV vaccine. Mamello lives in Phahameng with her mother. “Imagine telling your nine-year-old daughter not to play with that 15-year-old boy next door because he might penetrate her. How do you start this conversation?” her father asks. “Sex topics are still a taboo in our homes.” He pauses in thought for a moment. “Maybe if I had a boy I would find it easier to tell him about sex.”
Mamello’s mother, Ouma Mayo, agrees: “Maybe in another culture it’s easier to talk about sex. I can’t just wake up and say ‘my child, today let’s talk about sex’. That I won’t do, ka sefapano [swear with a cross].” She crosses her two index fingers in front of her to emphasise her point.
One of the driving factors behind the difficulties Gonyane Primary’s parents experience when having to talk to their children about sex, is that they have no example to follow: their own parents didn’t talk to them about sexual matters either.
“No one told me about sex when I was growing up,” says Dimakatso Qhautse (31). Qhautse is a cleaner at Gonyane and her eldest daughter, Nolubabalo, was vaccinated along with Mamello. “Even on the day I first had sex, my boyfriend just said to me, ‘Let’s go somewhere.’ Afterwards I saw blood on the bed sheets.”
Now Qhautse wants to protect her two daughters from a similar experience. When her nine-year-old daughter brought home the consent form parents have to sign for the girls to get vaccinated, Qhautse seized the opportunity to speak to Nolubabalo about sex.
“Babu, do you know what sex is?” she asked. The little girl shyly shook her head. “It’s when a man meets a woman,” her mother told her. Leaning forward in her seat, Qhautse recalls how her daughter giggled. “She just laughed … ‘Hi-hi, mama!’” Qhautse waves her hands in embarrassed excitement, imitating her child. “I told her: that is why you must first knock before you come into my bedroom,” she laughs.
Access to information
She’s concerned, however, about the kind of information her daughter can access in the least obvious place – the school toilets. “As I was cleaning the other day and going into the girls’ toilets, I found my daughter looking at the sexually explicit drawings and writings on the walls. I was shocked by what she was looking at.” Qhautse frantically scrubbed at the walls, intermittently pouring bleach over the crude scribbles, but nothing could remove the childlike images of stick-men in sexual simulation. “She asked me, ‘Mama what is this?’ I told her, ‘this is what happens if you want to have a child’.”
Mamello’s mother is equally concerned about the kind of sexual information her daughter has free access to. She shakes her head, laughs uncomfortably, sighs and folds her arms. “One night I woke up and found my daughter in her room watching pornography on TV, I told her I didn’t like what she was watching. I switched off the TV and told her to sleep. I made sure I kept coming to check that she was not watching it again.”
For some of the parents, waiting for a significant life event such as their child’s first menstrual cycle is a better way to “break the ice” and start a conversation around sex. But for Lebohang Nthlare, the school’s deputy principal, it was easier to seek the guidance of his extended family.
“While growing up I used to ask a lot of questions and my parents were scared to talk to me about sex,” he recalls. “They eventually asked one of the uncles to talk to me because they had noticed that I was curious about a lot of things.” Now as a parent, Nthlare uses the example of animals when telling his children about the birds and the bees. “Like when a rooster runs after a hen, you can use that to explain sex to your child,” he says.
But Qhautse says: “The last thing on my mind is to see my daughter falling pregnant. [If that happens] I’ll have to look after her child.” She believes the new three-year contraceptive implant introduced by the government this year will come in handy to prevent this.
Moleboheng Morabe, an unemployed single mom to a grade four girl at Gonyane Primary, however, warns that: “It does not help to get your daughter injected without talking to her, because this information is much better when it comes from parents.”
Qhautse is glad she has brought the subject up with her little girl. “Something clicked in my daughter’s head, then I started to realise there is [already] some information in her about sex,” she says.
“Thupa e kojwa e sa le metsi [you can only bend the branch of a tree while still fresh],” Moleboheng quotes an old Sotho saying, looking very serious. “It is better to talk to our children now, when they are still young, if we want them to grow up with knowledge.”
Ramatamo Sehoai is a Bhekisisa fellow
Tips for telling kids about sex
Start early. If you wait until high school, there’s a chance your children will know more than you do. Plus, you’ll miss the opportunity to give your kids some context when they start learning about sex from television and other media channels.
Get over yourself. We all have hang-ups when it comes to sex, and it’s not entirely realistic to ask people to get over them completely. But if we are going to give our kids honest and useful information, we need to find a way to get comfortable talking about the facts, feelings and values associated with sex.
Practise the words. Like “penis”. Or “vagina”. Say them out loud, so that you sound natural. Not only is it a good idea to give children the actual words, so that people can understand should they ever have to explain something that happened, it helps avoid future hang-ups if we are matter-of-fact and biological.
Read up on the details. If you aren’t entirely clear on how things like ovulation work or what chlamydia is, you might want to google them. You don’t need to elaborate. You don’t necessarily need to explain exactly how the sperm gets into the vagina, for example; it’s okay just to say that it does. If they ask, answer the question as simply as possible.
And finally, keep talking about it. – Claire McCarthy
What kids understand by age
Ages 2 to 3: The right words for private body parts, such as “penis” and “vagina”.
Ages 3 to 4: Where a baby comes from. But a simple “Mom has a uterus inside her tummy, where you lived until you were big enough to be born” is fine.
Ages 4 to 5: How a baby is born. Stick with “When you were ready to be born, the uterus pushed you out through Mommy’s vagina.”
Ages 5 to 6: A general idea of how babies are made. (“Mom and Dad made you.”) Or if your child demands more details: “A tiny cell inside Dad called a sperm joined with a tiny cell inside Mom, called an egg.”
Ages 6 to 7: A basic understanding of intercourse. You can say, “Nature [or God] created male and female bodies to fit together like puzzle pieces. When the penis and the vagina fit together, sperm, like tadpoles, swim through the penis and up to the egg.” Explain what you think about sex and relationships. Like: “Sex is one of the ways people show love for each other.”
Ages 8 to 9: That sex is important, which your child has probably picked up from the media and his and her peers. A child this age can handle a basic explanation on just about any topic, including rape. (“Remember when we talked about sex it is being part of a loving relationship. Rape is when someone forces another person to have sex, and that’s wrong.”)
Ages 9 to 11: What changes happen during puberty. Also be ready to discuss sex-related topics your child sees in the news.
Age 12: Kids formulate own values, so check in often to provide a better context for the information your child’s getting. But avoid overkill – or you’ll be tuned out.