By Nomatter Ndebele
It was business as usual at the International Aids conference in Durban in July 2016. The South African Minister of Health was about to address a plenary session when two young girls took to the stage. One made a beeline for the Minister and the microphone, while another stood with a placard about the effects of a lack of sanitary towels. Together, the Treatment Action Campaign’s (TAC) Ntombizodwa Maphosa and Tina Power set the agenda for young people at the international aids conference.
It was not a new conversation. For years, health activists have called for condoms and sanitary wear to be available in schools but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The only thing that changed were the numbers, and as the saying goes, numbers don’t lie.
The government’s National Strategic Plan (NSP) for 2012-2016 had envisaged an increase in male condom distribution from 492 million in 2010-11 to 1 billion, and 5.1 million female condoms in 2010-2011 to 25 million by 2016. Despite having set these goals four years ago, new infections are still on the rise.
Providing condoms in school has been a contentious issue within South African communities for a long time. Some argue that giving condoms to schoolchildren will only encourage them to become sexually active and therefore put learners at risk of teenage pregnancy as well as the transmission of diseases. Others have argued that creating easier access to condoms while including more in-depth sexual education within the life orientation curriculum, will help to curb the incidence of teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS infection rates among the youth.
The TAC has been at the forefront of the call for condoms and a comprehensive sexual education programme in schools. The TAC’s biggest concern, as explained by the National Women’s representative, Portia Serote, is that the law pertaining to the sexual rights of children is so contradictory that it is difficult to implement an effective plan to address the needs of learners for sexual education and access to contraception. One section of the Constitution, for example, defines a minor as being anyone under the age of 18, but another section states that having any sexual relations with anyone under the age of 16 is statutory rape.
The policy on condoms in schools gives power to school governing bodies (SGBs) to decide on whether or not they want condoms to be made accessible to learners. St Enda’s Secondary School in Johannesburg is one of those that has decided not to do so.
When interviewed by Spotlight, the principal, Moti, is somewhat dismissive of the idea, believing that it would be inappropriate, and should not even be promoted to children under the age of 18: ‛We wouldn’t want that,’ he says. ‛We are already dealing with a lot of external factors.’ The school is situated in the heart of Hillbrow and students and teachers are surrounded by drug dens and easy access to alcohol. For the principal, the last thing they want to do as a school is add to the long list of issues they battle with daily.
Although this is the official policy of the school, there are teachers who think providing access to condoms to pupils would not be a bad idea. One such educator is Afrikaans teacher Lenshur Abdul, who has also become the unofficial life orientation teacher.
‛At grade 11, there is no sexual education covered in the curriculum,’ she says. When students come knocking on her door, Abdul does her best to answer questions around sexuality, and sometimes refers them to the biology teacher.
According to Moti, the school also has the services of counsellors who engage with the learners in a general forum, to identify any issues that they may have. If necessary, children are referred to a social worker. The principal points out that although these programmes are available, he is not always privy to the information due to patient/counsellor confidentiality.
This year, reportedly, four girls have had babies, and two are currently pregnant. These numbers are, however, disputed by Moti, who believes that two girls fell pregnant this year and that one is currently pregnant. The principal confirms that learners who become pregnant are allowed to return to school.
‛How can we not talk to the children about these issues?’ asks Abdul. ‛In school we are trying to prepare them for the world ,which has HIV/AIDS, accidents and cancer,’ says Abdul.
Although debates continue about the morality and in some instances the feasibility of providing condoms in schools, the statistics continue to paint a worrying a picture. In South Africa, 2,000 schoolgirl pregnancies a week are reported – there is clearly a problem.
The MEC of Education, Panyaza Lesufi, says that recent statistics are enough to convince him that it is time to overhaul the entire approach to sexual education and access to contraceptives in schools. ‛We need to radically change whatever policy we had before, the statistics show that we are losing the battle, if 2,000 girls are newly impregnated, we cannot glorify such a policy,’ he says.
‛Pregnancy is not a scary thing anymore’
Sanele Zwane and his grade 11 friends, Lerato Ndlovu and Eva Malie, speak freely about pregnancy. Earlier this year a classmate of theirs fell pregnant. Zwane tells us, when she discovered she was pregnant, she started telling all the people in her grade not to be surprised if they didn’t see her later in the year, as she was going to having a baby. ‛She literally told everyone, even people she isn’t close to,’ Zwane recalls.
It is a reality they all face, and they are well aware of the various forms of contraception. ‛I think the Government just wants to cut down on the levels of teenage pregnancy, all they are really worried about is getting pregnant, but there is no counselling around sex,’ says Ndlovu.
‛Not talking about it (sex) is not helping us,’ adds Malie.
For these learners, what matters most is counselling that will provide them with emotional support, to prepare them to engage in sexual intercourse.
‛Nobody speaks to us about what it actually means [to have sex] with someone,’ says Ndlovu. Her beliefs around sex and abstinence are anchored in her religion. She believes that sex is sacred: ‛You can’t just go around giving everyone a piece of your soul,’ she explains.
Despite having different reasons for wanting to abstain from sex, the group is united in their view that a lot more should be done to provide social and emotional support about sex and teenage pregnancy. For most children, it is not easy to have a conversation about sex with their parents, there are questions that cannot be asked.
‛You know how our parents are, if you even try and bring these issues up, you are shut down immediately,’ says Zwane.
The generational gap between youngsters and parents is also evident between learners and the creators of the educational curriculum. ‛Our ministers and the MEC are from the 80s – they actually need to connect more with the youth,’ says Zwane.
‛I feel like the people who create these textbooks don’t even consult the youth,’ Malie adds.
Although Zwane and his peers are well aware of contraceptive methods, they have not thought as far ahead as the prevention of HIV/AIDS. For these 16-year-olds, pregnancy is a bigger scandal and an even bigger shame. ‛People can see your tummy, but nobody will ever know you have HIV/AIDS.’
A focus on HIV/AIDS advocacy is an issue that Health MEC Panyaza Lesufi has also identified. ‛We cannot wait until the 1st of December to start talking about HIV/AIDS; no schools should go without having posters about HIV/AIDS,’ he observes.
For Lesufi, the question of condoms in schools is not a moral question. ‛This has nothing to do with morals, it’s about taking collective responsibility,’ he says. We need to discuss the use of alcohol, we need to discuss drugs and sexual intercourse as being channels through which our children find themselves faced with issues of teenage pregnancy and being infected with HIV/AIDS.