New HIV policy for schools does not go far enough

New HIV policy for schools does not go far enough

By Kirsten Whitfield, SECTION27

The  DBE’s new National Policy on HIV, STIs and TB in the basic education sector allows learners access to condoms and contraceptives, a development that has been lauded widely since its launch at the 8th SA AIDS Conference which took place in Durban from 13 to 15 June.

However, somewhat confusingly, the policy describes access to condoms as “dependent only on age of consent, inquiry and need”, while information on condom use will be facilitated for learners over the age of 12.

According to the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Amendment Act of 2007 sexual penetration by anyone over 16 with anyone below the age of 16 is prohibited, unless there is an age difference of less than two years. The amendment does allow sex between children within the 12 to 16 bracket. The DBE’s 2017 policy states that the age of consent is 16.

Thus, it is unclear who the policy is targeting as potential recipients of

What 16 year old would be comfortable approaching an adult at school, a person in a position of authority, to ask them for something that will help that teenager have sex?

condoms. If by ‘age of consent’ they mean 16 and up, this would mean that, while it is legal for children between 12 and 16 to have sex with their peers, they will only be able to learn about condom use, but won’t be allowed to actually access condoms until they turn 16.

Yet in a presentation given at the launch of this policy, Suren Govender, Chief Director of Curriculum Implementation and Monitoring, cited the case of a 15 year old child who endured an unwanted pregnancy. Sexual maturation happens between the ages of 8 and 14. Should we allow children below 16 a possible 8 years of heightened vulnerability to unwanted pregnancy and disease? Particularly when the Sexual Offences Act does not prohibit sex between two people between 12 and 16. And what of the children below 12 years of age? Do they not also deserve protection?

Even the children who do meet the requirements will only be able to access condoms if they ask for them from “suitable persons”. What 16 year old would be comfortable approaching an adult at school, a person in a position of authority, to ask them for something that will help that teenager have sex? “Discreet access” that requires vulnerable people to ask for condoms from someone with power over them is not really access.

It also dangerously overlooks the prevalence of sexual abuse of school children by their educators or other staff members. It should be taken into account that children below 16 and indeed below 12 are frequently raped, thus the age of consent, however the policy defines it, should not really carry such weight in the decision to provide children with knowledge and the means to protect themselves, should their consent be violated.

High HIV incidence

Moreover, young women between 15 and 24 are identified in South Africa’s new National Strategic Plan for HIV, TB and STIs (NSP) 201702022 as having the highest incidence of HIV of any group, making up approximately 100 000 of the 270 000 new infections each year. Coupled with the high rate of teen pregnancy of learners, including those below 16, unencumbered access to condoms seems like the only viable option for allowing children to protect themselves, as well as beginning to provide access to measures like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

We have to admit that learners are having sex anyway, or these numbers would not exist, and the moral qualms we or their parents might have about providing unfettered access to condoms should not overshadow the very real need to provide learners with the means to protect themselves. Access to condoms in all school bathrooms should become the norm and learners as young as eight years old should be educated on what they are for and how to use them.

Zero tolerance?

More to the issue of sexual violence in schools, the policy does not do enough to address the massive issue of sexual abuse in schools. The policy states that there will be “zero tolerance for any form of sexual abuse directed at any learners, educators, school support staff and officials” but outlines no plan for prevention, such as rigorous training programmes for teachers and staff, careful monitoring of teacher-student relationships, programmes to ensure the students know their rights and know who to speak to if they feel uncomfortable at school or at home and so they learn how to respect each other and how to give and seek consent.

Properly addressing this issue is fundamental to the management of HIV, STIs and unwanted pregnancies in schools. According to Govender’s presentation, almost 5 000 (4 446) school children fell pregnant last year alone and he suggested that many of these pregnancies were the result of educators having sex with learners. If this is the case, a ‘zero tolerance’ response is not enough on its own. There needs to be a plan to prevent such abuses. We can’t wait until it’s too late for the child before we do anything to protect them. Furthermore, the policy makes no mention of the abuse of learners by their peers.

Inclusive Sexuality Education

One excellent aspect of the policy is that Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) will be “a compulsory and timetabled subject in the curriculum” and that it will be “age-appropriate, culturally relevant, scientifically accurate, realistic and non-judgmental”. It is unclear what ‘age-appropriate’ means here (again, age plays a confusing role in the definition of the policy’s terms) but in sum the CSE plan sounds thorough and promising.

However, it will fail its learners if it does not properly address the needs of LGBTQIAP+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, pansexual and other non-normative sexual and gender identified) people and learners living with disabilities. The policy makes brief mention of these groups but gives very little sense of how they will be represented in CSE – a fundamental requirement as both are considered key populations in management of HIV/AIDS and both are very vulnerable to abuse and institutional neglect.  This is perhaps just an effect of the policy’s vagueness, rather than a lack of intention.

Ideally, CSE will cover a wide range of body types and sexual experiences in teaching learners how sex works and how to protect yourself physically and emotionally when engaging in sex. The limited view of sex as ‘able-bodied man has penetrative sex with able-bodied woman’ needs to become a thing of the past and any plans going forward will need to account for that. Sex education must acknowledge differences of experience if we are serious about combating disease and abuse in the basic education sector.  It would also be a missed opportunity for any new sex education curriculum to continue to perpetuate a heteronormative view of sexuality and gender. Schools hold great potential to affect change in society and they could have long-term positive effects by teaching children from a young age that there are various ways to be and to experience attraction and sex. Such a curriculum has the potential to not only help children find confidence in themselves, but to teach them to be more tolerant of others, which could reduce homophobic and transphobic hate crimes and gender based violence.

Vague on implementation

As a whole, the new policy is promising and exciting in many ways but it often reads as an idealised theoretical document. Similar to other recent policies, such as the NSP, it ticks some of the boxes but is vague on how it will be implemented.

The policy’s central practical commitment is for the DBE to “guide and coordinate the planning and implementation of a new strategic framework for HIV, STIs, TB and unintended pregnancy response by the nine provincial Departments of Education, down to the district and institutional level.” It seems to be delaying a process that should have formed part of this policy. The DBE policy, as it stands, is lacking in detail, targets, timeframe and budget. To shift these details off onto another strategic framework rather than incorporating them here seems like an unnecessary delay and raises serious concerns regarding the policy’s implementation.

One can only hope that if such a framework is drawn up, that it answers the questions raised by this current document, and more fully and practically addresses the needs of all learners.

When asked about the issue of administering condoms in the limited fashion outlined above and the potential for that to expose children to shame and even abuse, Govender suggested that the department had to ensure that the policy was implemented without upsetting the parents. It is tricky, but the interests of learners, not parents must be the top priority of a policy such as this. Hopefully any plans going forward will put at the centre the wellbeing of the learners and do the utmost to ensure their safety, health and prosperity in the educational environment.