Sex education lacking at schools

Youth with access to technology are talking far more about sex and sexuality than any other generation in South African history.

“Adults in Shakespeare’s time thought students were having sex all the time and the same thing is happening now. The perception never changes, while in reality, teenagers are actually more knowledgeable and more in charge of their bodies than before,” said Scott Burnett, the group director for programmes at loveLife.

His programme supports teachers in 9 000 schools (a third of all government schools) in teaching students from the age of 12 about sex and sexuality. Although the government policy supporting this education – the promotion of healthy sexuality – is progressive, Burnett said it could fall down because of problems with implementation.
The biggest obstacle to sex education, he said, is teachers who come from an older generation that is uncomfortable talking about sex.

Marion Steven, the co-ordinator of the Women in Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health Associates, said the department of basic education needs to do more. “It is trying to work on adolescent sexuality, but it has not quite managed to take the lead on the issue. And teenagers don’t have anywhere to turn for information.” 

Model of abstinence
The curriculum needs to be improved and more work needs to be done to educate teachers on how to handle issues of sexuality. “The fashion for teachers is to cling to this model of abstinence, so students are not prepared for sex,” she said. “It leads to them having sex too early when they are pressured to do so and to unplanned pregnancies.”

In many cases, it is up to the individual school to manage what is taught, because the department does not have the resources to drive these programmes, Steven said. In these cases, sex education can start as late as grade 10, when students are 16. 

“Children who are exposed to proper training will wait until they are older to have sex,” Steven said.

This year’s Praekelt Foundation’s Youth Sex Survey of 17 000 local teenagers showed that up to 15% have had sex by their 16th birthday, a further 27% have had sex by the age of 18 and 25% were still virgins.

The same survey found that 60% of teenagers would not ask their parents about sex. Forty-four percent of those who had had sex said they had no information to guide them.

Education is critical
The department of basic education’s last annual survey found that 17 pupils in grade three had become pregnant in 2008. A total of 49 600 had fallen pregnant across all grades.

Juliet Houghton, the programme director of paediatric training organisation Chiva Africa, said education is critical and teenagers need to get it from a neutral source, otherwise they would be too scared to talk freely.

“Parents are anxious that teaching and talking about sex and sexuality will encourage their children to have sex. The opposite is true and many studies have shown this. In fact, if we don’t talk to young people, they’ll go and have sex without any knowledge,” she said.

Schools and clinics are not as inviting as they need to be for teenagers, she said. This means they turn to their peers for information.

But, Houghton said, with the government’s creation of a new standardised youth policy, there should be more impetus for these measures.

The executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids, Michel Sidibé, said human sexuality and relationships had to be at the core of education.

“Far too many young people are receiving inadequate preparation, which leaves them vulnerable to coercion, abuse, exploitation, unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” he said.

By numbers
15% Teenagers surveyed who have had sex by their 16th birthday
60% Teenagers surveyed who would not ask their parents about sex
49 600 Students who fell pregnant in 2008

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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