South Africa regrettably has a high rate of teenage pregnancies, HIV infections and is considered one of the highest-ranking “rape capitals” in the world too. Equally disturbing is that South Africa is recorded as having the highest numbers of the HIV epidemic in the world. According to the UNAids 2017 Global Aids Update report, an estimated 7.7 million people were living with HIV.
Notably, the rate of infection is more prevalent among young women; where it is overwhelmingly nearly four times greater than that of men their age. Young women between the age of 15 and 24 made up 37% of new infections in South Africa in 2016, as per Avert. Recent studies have also found that only 59% of young people in South Africa have comprehensive knowledge of ways to prevent HIV. It is estimated that only 5% of our schools provide CSE. Statistics show that pregnancy among school-going learners has increased at an alarming rate. Statistics SA recorded that in 2017, 10.9% of births were among girls aged 10 to 19.
Incongruent sources, a lack of adequate access to factual and accurate information as well prevailing myths and related stigma on sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) further exacerbate the high rates of teenage pregnancies, maternal deaths, STIs such as HIV and unsafe abortions. Despite these statistics, the debate on the effective introduction and implementation of CSE continues to rage on, all at the expense of our youth.
A greater focus on sexuality education is critical to youth well-being, as stated in the South African Integrated School Health Policy, 2012. This is a key example of the government’s efforts to promote youth health and well-being in schools. However, CSE has been a topical and controversial issue in the spotlight.
Groups such as the Concerned Young People of SA (CYPSA) and Freedom of Religion SA are advocating for the scrapping of CSE in schools. The perceived sensitive nature of the subject matter has been met with wide resistance particularly from parents and religious groups. Other challenges include the fact that many teachers and educators are also ill-equipped and not adequately trained to deliver CSE.
This dissenting narrative and opposition against CSE are unfortunate. Talking to young people about sex and sexuality does not increase their sexual activity. Rather, it provides them with the knowledge, understanding and skills to make informed decisions about all aspects of their lives. CSE enables young people to adopt positive sexual behaviours, such as delaying the age of sexual debut, reducing the frequency of sex and number of sexual partners, and increasing use of contraception, especially condoms.
According to UNFPA, providing CSE in South African schools led to a 33% reduction in genital herpes (HSV2) incidence in young people, a significant decrease in physical violence or sexual assault perpetrated by young men, and a lower proportion of young men engaging in transactional sex with a casual partner.
Scaling up access to quality CSE information in schools and other education institutions – that is culturally appropriate, gender-sensitive and informed by evidence – is vital. For this, we need a multi-pronged and multi-stakeholder approach.
Along with information, we need to ensure increased access to youth-friendly SRH services. This includes access to condoms, contraceptives, HIV counselling and testing, HIV/STI treatment, abortion care, safe delivery, prevention of mother-to-child transmission and other related SRHR services. Given the complex relationship between socioeconomic status, patriarchy, gender-based violence and sexual behaviour, CSE programmes should be multidimensional, integrated and holistic and teachers should be equipped with the training and information they need to be confident to implement such programmes successfully.
We need strong, enduring partnerships between schools, health sectors and community organisations and to pursue strategies to shift negative behavioural patterns and narratives. Developing role models to promote alternative narratives would help. I read about how the women’s rugby captain, Babalwa Latsha, spoke about her experiences relating to gender bias. The powerful impact of personal stories and experiences can help reach the youth and empower parents and teachers.
The youth are the future of our country and we, as a society, need to come together and ensure that they have all the resources and information to allow them to lead productive lives. Information about their health and bodies and the right to make decisions about them is central to this. No young person should have to suffer from preventable adverse health outcomes for want of accurate information and knowledge. We must empower the youth to be able to make the right decisions for themselves and their lives.
As governments, civil society and the private sector are about to gather in Nairobi in November to review the commitments made 25 years ago at the International Conference on Population and Development, the youth will be asking hard questions of “the elders”, including whether we are violating their human rights to information, education and health every time we deny them comprehensive sexuality education.