"We cannot continue to pretend that our young people are not sexually active," said Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi at the opening of the 6th South African Aids conference in Durban on Tuesday. "Learners need sexual and health reproductive services and I've met with the deputy education minister, school governing bodies, principals and parents of the poorest schools to explain why."
In October last year, the government launched the integrated school health programme that incorporated sex education and access to contraception for pupils. But while the health department supports the idea of making contraceptives available at schools, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is more conservative.
In November last year she told the council of provinces: "They [pupils] don't have sex at school, they have sex at home. There's something wrong indeed that it now becomes my problem. We don't provide beds, we provide pens and books."
The health department has introduced mobile school clinics, which, along with other health services, will provide "sexual and reproductive counselling, which includes making available contraception". According to health department deputy director general Yogan Pillay, his department has agreed with the education department that each school's governing body can vote on whether such services should be provided on school grounds.
Helen Rees from the Institute for Sexual and Reproductive Health at Wits University said the average age of first sexual intercourse of girls in South Africa is 16, "but for some girls it starts much younger".
Motsoaledi said: "Many teenage girls fall prey to sugar daddies or older men who have resources to buy sex, making them vulnerable to getting infected with HIV. Young girls are four to eight times more likely to be infected with HIV than boys of the same age."
Lucy Cluver, who is affiliated to the universities of Cape Town and Oxford, said research showed "sugar daddies" were much more likely to be infected with HIV than younger boys "because they have had more sexual partners and if they have money, are more likely to have had more girlfriends".
Cluver released study results at the conference that showed that child support grants reduced the likelihood of teenage girls having transactional sex by more than half. According to the study, it can reduce the prevalence of teenage girls having sexual relationships for financial gain by 55% and the likelihood of them having sexual partners five or more years older than them by 55% to 60%.
Motsoaledi said "teenage pregnancies should be tackled head on".
"We know that keeping girls in school until matric protects them from both pregnancy and HIV infection. We must therefore, as a society, do anything possible to keep young people in school".