Growing up, the entirety of my sex education boiled down to three main pieces of advice: stay away from boys, make sure you marry a good boy and have babies (hopefully boys). I’m not sure what they tell the fellas but I’m guessing it’s some gendered version of the same old-fashioned ‘advice’. The problem with this is that it leaves you woefully unprepared for the messy, real-life business of touching naughty bits with other people’s naughty bits.
Despite the fact that there is a long history of sex education in many African countries – ssengas in Uganda, for instance, or kitchen parties in Zambia – when it comes to modern-day sex education we like to pretend that we all got here through some immaculate conception. We don’t talk to kids about safe sex, or even the joys of sex, and instead we teach them to abstain from sex until marriage. This leaves them in the precarious position of having to figure things out by themselves.
STDs on the continent – a silent epidemic
We all know the statistics – that there are more than 23 million people living with HIV/Aids in sub-Saharan Africa – but have we given any thought to the fact that there are an estimated 4 960 320 people in Ghana living with an STD, or 1 968 800 in Rwanda? Recent studies on the prevalence of chlamydia among pregnant women have shown rates of 6% in Tanzania to 13% in Cape Verde. According to the World Health Organisation, the highest increase rate of curable STDs per 1 000 people is in sub-Saharan Africa. Truth is there are far too many people on the continent living with some form of STD but we seldom hear much talk about this. Moreover, we know that children (18 years and below) are having sex, so why are they not being taught the kind of sex education that takes into account all these realities; the kind of education that equips them to make the right choices?
Although the sex education framework tends to be governed by the ABCs – Abstinence, Be Faithful and Condomise most children on the continent, it seems, are only being taught the A: abstinence (until marriage, that is). The abstinence doctrine is not only being propagated in the home (as evidenced by the many silences around sex) but also in the public sphere. A noteworthy example is the ‘Bursaries for Virginity’ scheme in South Africa, which is widely viewed as unconstitutional and reckless, causing the Commission for Gender Equality to recommend that it be scrapped.
Proponents choose to ignore the fact that countless studies have proved that abstinence-only methods do not work and merely ‘teaches lies to ill-informed virgins’. In the United States, 80 percent of abstinence-only programmes were found by a 2004 congressional committee to teach “false, misleading or distorted information”.
To add to that, a whole host of lies whirl around sex education programmes that are linked to religious entities, such as the notion that condoms cause cancer and that promiscuous women are more prone to cervical cancer, or even that one can get pregnant from a blow job. The latter is a particular rumour that sometimes originates from teenagers themselves.
From all the evidence at hand it is clear that children on the continent are having sex, so why are we not making sure they are doing it safely and are equipped with the requisite information?
A worrying decline in the practice of safe sex
In 2010, the World Health Organisation reported a spike in the number of HIV cases, which was especially high in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Francis Ndowa, an expert in public health and the prevention and control of sexually transmitted infections, says: “Some young people are assuming that now that there is treatment for HIV, it has a cure – which it has not.” It would also seem that young people are beginning to not practice safer sex, placing themselves at risk of catching all sorts of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. In order to tackle these issues, there is undoubtedly a need to further sex education and to take it out of the realm of the taboo.
To tell young people that they should simply abstain from sex is reckless because it leaves them extremely vulnerable. They are going to have sex and that is the truth of the matter. So there is a definite need to talk to them about birth control, protection and everything else in between.
Sex education is not about teaching kids to have sex but about equipping them to protect themselves. This does not only extend to preventing the transmission of STDs but also to empowering them to know when something is happening that is not right, i.e. sexual abuse. It will allow them to make more informed decisions with each other than “So, uhm, I wonder what it would be like to rub our naked bodies together…?”