recent photo of a first year student from University of Zimbabwe lying lifeless in a pool of blood after trying to abort a pregnancy using a coat hanger brings a chill to one’s spine.
If she made it to university, surely, shouldn’t she be knowledgeable about pregnancy and how to prevent it? Surely, she should understand enough of her anatomy to know that a coat hanger is unlikely to dislodge a foetus.
However, the reality is that she and millions of young people like her progress from adolescence into adulthood without receiving this vital lifesaving information. We celebrate their high school achievements in maths, science and geography, but we fail to equip them with the basic information about growing up, about relationships and about their bodies.
We fail our young people when we insist on abstinence-only education; we fail them when we exclude content on condoms and contraceptives from our curricula; we fail them when we don’t prepare teachers to teach them the vital life topics; we fail as parents and community when we don’t listen to young people and talk to them about puberty, relationships and yes, when we don’t talk about when to have sex and how to have safe sex.
In the last few months, the East and Southern Africa region has been abuzz with shocking statistics and stories on teenage pregnancy following the launch of the “Let’s Talk!” Campaign. In 2018, Malawi had 85 000 girls in the 10-19 year bracket fall pregnant. It is not just teenage pregnancy that is concerning. HIV poses a real and growing threat to the health and well-being of our young people.
These statistics are hardly surprising because our young people leave schools with limited, incomplete and inaccurate information on their bodies, on how to relate with others and how the decisions and choices they make have an effect on others. We are missing the opportunity to teach young people about sex, and safer sex behaviours before they become sexually active so that they can be adequately prepared for a healthy and consensual relationship when the right time comes.
Let’s take advantage of the high enrolments in our education system to ensure that we equip our children and young people from as early as 10 with age appropriate and culturally relevant knowledge and skills to make responsible choices about their lives through sexuality education. The United Nations International Technical Guidance on sexuality education promotes scientifically accurate and age appropriate teaching about sexuality including learning the facts about sex and reproduction before age 12.
Sexuality education is about more than sex—it includes information that helps young people to understand their bodies and the changes of puberty; it equips them to navigate relationships and provides them with vital life skills that parents, and caregivers are not always able or willing to provide.
We know from rigorous research that if young people receive good quality sexuality education, it actually leads to later and more responsible sexual behaviour. This is because sexuality education helps young people to delay initiation of sexual intercourse, decrease number of sexual partners; and, reduce frequency of sex in sexually active teenagers.
When young people do not receive good quality sexuality education from trusted sources, they become vulnerable to conflicting and sometimes even damaging messages from their peers, the media or other sources.
Evidence illustrates that children benefit from receiving scientifically accurate, non-judgmental and age-and developmentally-appropriate information through formal schooling.
Good quality sexuality education should be taught from primary school right through to tertiary education, accompanied by increased access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services such as access to condoms, contraceptives, HIV counselling and testing, HIV/STIs treatment, abortion care, safe delivery, prevention of mother-to-child transmission and other related SRHR services. If we did this well, our systems would not fail our young people.