By Biénne Huisman
In Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape girls as young as 11 years old are falling pregnant and becoming HIV-infected, prompting renewed calls by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) that government condoms are distributed at primary schools.
This and other concerns were raised at a TAC workshop on sexual reproductive rights for women at the Cosy Posy Hotel and Conference Centre in Lusikisiki in February. The workshop was attended by girls and women affiliated to the Village Clinic and Goso Forest Clinic, aged 10 years and older.
‘It is apparent that from 11 years old, kids are getting pregnant,’ said Sinolutho Zweni (12), addressing attendees at the workshop. ‘So how about taking condoms to junior schools. They are available at clinics, but these are often so far from schools, with children having to walk miles to get them. It would be so much easier if they were at schools.’
Also raised at the workshop, was youngsters fearing being shouted at by health workers should they go to clinics to fetch condoms.
Meanwhile, in Lusikisiki’s main road lamp posts and just about every other conceivable surface is covered in pamphlets advertising ‘safe abortions’.
Zweni added that teacher absenteeism and a lack in teacher attention was causing young pupils to experiment with sex during school hours: ‘Teachers don’t come to school to teach, the end result is kids engaging in sexual activities in the bathrooms while they should be in class studying. Often teachers are not paying enough attention to learners.’
Speakers at the workshop pointed out that the problem often started at home, saying that many parents were prone to drinking at shebeens – with mothers allegedly often overlooking rape of their daughters for fear of angering male providers.
‘A lot of neighbours have shebeens, so from a young age children are exposed to booze, parents drinking, and bad things like rape,’ said Sinalo Mlakalaka (11), at the workshop. ‘The children feel they are not safe within their own communities. At home, children are not allowed to speak out about rape. Maybe the rapist is the uncle or the stepfather. The mother will keep quiet about it, because “this is the person that is providing for us”.’
Mlakalaka said men must be educated that it is a privilege to have children and to take care of them, while mothers must be supported to protect their children over male elders.
She added that young girls who feel unloved and unsupported at home become vulnerable to preying older men, giving rise to a growing ‘blesser’ culture: ‘As a result of all this the girls go out and get “blessers” – those older men with money and cars – who give them what they want like cellphones in exchange for sex; these girls just want to feel loved and accepted.’
Some parents are even sending their young daughters to be married to older men for money. ‘Something should be done, there must be a plan,’ said Sesethu Vinjwa (20), at the workshop. ‘There was a case at one of the clinics of a 14 year old girl married to a 38 year old man. It is also teachers’ responsibility to see kids do not marry older men.’
TAC’s provincial manager, Noloyiso Ntamenthlo, said that while HIV education and ARVs had become a common way of life for many in Lusikisiki, she was concerned about the younger generation.
‘The problem we are having now are young girls at school and those just coming out of school,’ she said. ‘I am 42 years old, I know much about HIV, but I think there is a gap, we’ve missed to educate the young ones about ARVs. I’m talking around 15 to 24 years old; when they test positive for HIV and they have to start taking ARVs – it is a struggle for them.’
She added: ‘Secondly my worry is the young mothers with HIV who did not get nevirapine, these mothers are wondering when do they tell their children that they are living with HIV? Here at the TAC office, we had a mother come around saying: “My child is doing grade 12 now; I didn’t get nevirapine and he is living with HIV. He is not attaining treatment because I am scared to tell him. Maybe he knows, because he’s in grade 12 and he’s Googling.”’
Ntamenthlo said the TAC recognised a great need to reach out to youngsters at their homes, to focus on educating the area’s new generation.
Department of Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said the issue of distributing condoms at primary school level fell under the department’s national policy on HIV, STIs and TB for learners, which was workshopped last year.
Responding to questions on whether condoms will be made available to learners at primary schools, Mhlanga said: ‘Discreet access to male and female condoms will be available to all learners around the country, and indeed Lusikisiki is a part of that’. However, he did not say by when this would happen.