Focus on sex education - an antidote to HIV/AIDS

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Focus on sex education - an antidote to HIV/AIDS

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Investing in education, especially for girl children, can be a powerful antidote to HIV infection

JOHANNESBURG, 29 Jun 2004 (PLUSNEWS) - What most parents would not wish to know is that the age of their children's first sexual encounter is getting younger, and with it the risk of HIV infection.

In Swaziland, nearly one-third of young people in secondary school have had sex by age 16, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). In Zambia, when looking at teenage girls alone, that figure rises to nearly half of those questioned.

The consequences can be shocking. A major survey of South African youth conducted by the University of Witwatersrand's Reproductive Health Research Unit, found that one in every 10 South Africans aged between 15 and 24 was HIV-positive, the vast majority of them young women, many of whom were coerced into their first sexual encounter.

Investing in education, especially for girl children, can be a powerful antidote to HIV infection, raising living standards and opportunities. And with many parents unwilling to talk to their children about safe sex, the importance of structured and appropriate sexual health classes at school becomes all the more important.

Schools provide a "crucial opportunity to reach children with prevention messages before they become sexually active, and if this opportunity is seized through well-designed sexual and reproductive health education programmes, the protective impact of schooling can be considerably enhanced," Oxfam said earlier this year in a report on the impact of education on HIV/AIDS.

"Information received in the classroom is especially important to girls, who are far less likely than boys to have basic knowledge about how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and have less access to other sources of accurate information," said the report, 'Learning to survive: How education for all would save millions of young people from HIV/AIDS'.

Rather than promoting sex among the young, sex education in schools actually delays sexual activity, and helps young people defend themselves against HIV/AIDS, noted a World Health Organisation study conducted in 68 countries.


But in Swaziland, where nearly 40 percent of adults are HIV-positive, secondary school students are still taught about "reproduction" as part of their biology syllabus in the last two years of high school, despite pleas by some educators for a revised curriculum that incorporates family planning methods.

"We have to be specific about ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, like condom usage. These kids' lives depend on it," said Theresa Dlamini, a secondary school teacher in the central town of Manzini.

Condom usage is considered "unSwazi" by traditionalists. To help overcome those attitudes, health NGOs like the Swaziland AIDS Support Organisation, a counselling group for people living with HIV and AIDS, visit schools. "We speak to the schoolchildren in groups and individually," explained Thabsile Ndwandwe, a counsellor. "They have many questions, not only about ways to avoid AIDS, but also about love relationships and pregnancies."

In Malawi, abstinence was viewed until recently as the appropriate response to sex by school-age children. Now, recognising that sexual experimentation - and exploitation - does take place, a "life skills" component has been added to the syllabus with the help of UNFPA and the UN Children's Fund, which teachers are going to be trained to impart.

"Pupils in our schools are not learning anything about sex. Even at home there is no proper parent-child communication on the issue, and as a result our pupils are getting unreliable information from friends," said Daniel Msonda, UNFPA's programme assistant.

"The problem we have is that of culture. Teaching pupils about sex is like you are telling them what they are not supposed to know," James Phiri, a teacher in the capital, Lilongwe, told PlusNews. But teenager Lillian Gausi was clear about the need for life skills. "We pupils should know about HIV/AIDS because we are the ones affected by the disease. Once we have the necessary information, we will be able to say 'no' to sex."


In Zambia the dilemma is not so much over sex education, but the distribution of condoms in school. They are ostensibly provided for the teachers by the ministry of education, but are also commonly handed out to students. In March, education minister Andrew Mulenga, a staunch Catholic, banned the supply on grounds that it would encourage promiscuity, but some officials in his department have ignored the edict.

Age-relevant "life skills" have been added to the school curriculum in Malawi
"The teachers will use their discretion in sharing the condoms with those who choose to have sex, and among them might be students. The minister can't very well tell us to stop giving teachers condoms," explained education policy advisor Naluwa Chalwe.

Chalwe said education ministers came and went, but there was too much at stake to stop distributing condoms. "The next minister might hold a different view, with no problem with condoms or sex education. It is us - the people on the ground - that have to be consistent because, when all is said and done, we are the ones who will remain grappling with HIV-infected students."

Traditionally, initiation ceremonies were the main method of passing on advice about sex to the young. But with children increasingly having sex at a younger age, and HIV/AIDS not part of the repertoire of customs handed down by elders, the ceremonies are struggling to remain relevant.

"We get much more information at school with our teachers and our class mates. We cannot rely on that outdated and mostly superstitious teaching to help us prevent pregnancies or HIV/AIDS," explained one 16-year-old boy who recently underwent initiation. "We might still be in school, but we are not small children, we are young adults with active sex lives."

Teacher Bestone Manda says sex education is designed to be appropriate for each age group. Junior grades learn life skills: rudimentary self-awareness and assertiveness. Gradually the implications of sex and HIV/AIDS are introduced, with some issues now examinable and appearing in the final secondary school examinations.

Manda said that just like everyone else, teachers had to learn to overcome their embarrassment to deliver the lessons. "We are also parents and went through the same traditional socialisation, and it was initially difficult to talk to adolescent girls, who could well have been our daughters, about HIV/AIDS and sex. But we overcame that because we realised we had a serious pandemic on our hands, and there was nowhere else for these children to get reliable and correct information."

Beatrice Namwiinga, a 14-year-old student, says the classes have helped to debunk lots of myths and misinformation about HIV/AIDS and sex. She gave the example of her first boyfriend, who said he could not be HIV positive because he was circumcised. Another partner said her body was too immature to carry a baby, so she could not fall pregnant. "After learning about HIV/AIDS, I am actually no longer interested in sex."

But while sex education can empower children to protect themselves, it is often delivered in the context of under-resourced schools - presenting yet another set of challenges.

"Effective AIDS education demands systematic investment in improving public education systems, so that every child has access to a free education and the basic conditions for learning are in place in every classroom: properly trained and paid teachers, class sizes no greater than 40, basic materials such as books and chalk, and good support and participation from the local community," the Oxfam report noted.


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