An affirmative departure

Schools may well be feeling helpless in the face of the spiralling rate of HIV infections, especially in the 14- to 25-year-old age group. Learners resist the information that is officially on offer and we don’t seem to be hitting the mark.

But a recent survey (August to December 2006) – conducted by The Kaiser Family Foundation and the SABC – may prove to be a lifeline to educators, and set us thinking creatively about reaching our learners. The survey provides us with the responses of 4 000 young South Africans, aged 15 to 24, to questions concerning HIV/Aids and the role of the media in HIV prevention and education.

I think many of us are under the impression that high school learners are not interested in more information on HIV and Aids if their apathy, when the subject is raised, is anything to go by. The survey proves us wrong. However, the information they want is specific. And, furthermore, the mode of communication – “talking openly” – also needs close scrutiny.

Generally, respondents (particularly those from informal settlements or rural areas) say they would like to have more information about various aspects of the disease, such as how to protect themselves from HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases, and how to talk more openly with parents and other adults about HIV/Aids, sex, relationships between boys and girls, alcohol, drugs and other difficult issues.

Other “difficult” issues include:

  • how to talk to your partner about getting an HIV test before having sex;
  • how to resist pressure from girlfriends/boyfriends to have sex;
  • how to discuss using a condom with your partner;
  • where to get tested for HIV;
  • where to get HIV/Aids treatment; and
  • how to prevent pregnancy.

We cannot deny that a need to talk about the difficult issues listed above is a clear indication that teenagers and young adults are keenly aware of the dangers of HIV infection and that they are desperate to find solutions.

With this in mind, it seems to make no sense that high-risk sexual behaviour is rife at school level. The survey reveals that more than half of the sexually experienced young people who took part in the survey reported that they do not always use condoms. And, of the 57% of sexually active women and girls that fell pregnant, 62% did not want to have a child. We know about the “baby boom” that has struck high schools, and a number of those babies born to school girls are likely to be HIV-positive and unwanted.

There are no simple solutions to these “difficult issues”. First, educators and parents have to accept that the majority of 15- to 18-year-olds are sexually active and do not practise safe sex. We cannot afford to deal with the runaway infection rate in South Africa with blinkers on. Preaching abstinence or assuming your child is a virgin will just mean you are moving further away from the reality of HIV infection.

What teenagers are asking adults to do is talk openly about difficult sexual issues. How do we do this when we all know that many adults are unable to talk openly to their partners about sexual issues?

Let us for a moment imagine we can, through the prism of the survey, look into the mind of a young South African of today. Generally, the survey establishes that they feel optimistic, have clear goals, are hopeful about the future and can depend on their friends and family.

But what emerges alongside this picture is a sense of foreboding. HIV is imprinted on the screen of their minds in big letters. Questions arise that have no answers. Will I get a job? Will I have enough money to support a family? Will I become infected with HIV in the next 10 years?

If educators can see into the minds of learners, it is easier to accommodate their needs. What emerges as vitally important is the need to ensure that learners perform well academically and extra-murally and gain confidence in their abilities, whether these are speaking skills, ball techniques or mathematical talents. We need to shift from an emphasis on competition to affirmation of each individual. Learners with such a weight on their shoulders need reassurance that the future can be hopeful and they need lashings of love, praise and encouragement.

We can take our cue from the reaction of young people to the messages about HIV/Aids transmitted on radio and TV. Messages about fear and death turn them off. They favour messages that are hopeful and tap into young peoples aspirations.

HIV/Aids has presented itself at a time when sexual mores have changed and innocence seems to be a thing of the past, largely due to the media and new technology. Our young people fall in love and make love and bear children not in a Garden of Eden but in a Garden of Death.

Every school has a message, whether spoken or unspoken, and the time may have arrived to up-date the message we are sending out in line with the difficult issues our learners face.

What I hope to cover in my next article is a number of practicable ideas on communication and listening skills – suggested by writers such as Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think – to enable us to speak openly to learners.

Joan Dommisse can be contacted at [email protected]

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