A rather contentious suggestion was made in an article published in Weekend Nation of 8th February that schools should provide students with condoms. Literally schools are being asked to mobilise, stock and distribute condoms to students in case or because they are sexually active. Nothing could be more controversial!
Those who question the wisdom of this idea invoke the classical moral argument that doing so simply sanctions children to indulge in casual sex while its proponents believe that this is acceptable as long as it saves lives. I have a different axe to grind, namely the uncalled for sense of desperation and the numerous wrong assumptions that seem to lead to this kind of thinking.
I would agree that an exceptional threat such as HIV needs an exceptional response, but not a desperate response which unwittingly discounts other things that society should also value. Before we get so desperate we have to consider why, where and with whom children are behaving this way and what we can do. We have to understand the social context of our children and decisively address HIV risk factors before making desperate decisions we could regret.
School children have access to a lot of information about HIV transmission, impacts and prevention, including where to find condoms. The school curriculum covers HIV and Aids and other sexually transmitted infections in more than one subject and through numerous extra-curricular activities in and out of school. Teenagers cannot be so dumb as to assume that they do not know where to get help from within the areas they live in. Most of them are active members of young people’s groups, formal and informal, which transmit a lot of information on the epidemic and much more. Worse is the assumption that access to condoms means correct and consistent use. This is not the case.
The suggestion also seems to assume that teenagers are incapable of abstinence. Well, I believe that the majority abstaining or it could be much worse given that 54 percent of the population are children under 18 years of age living in desperate situations. It is also erroneous to assume that students are having sex with their own age mates. Clearly this is not the case. The painful fact is that the majority of girls who are overtly active are into relationships with older manipulative men some of whom disregard protection as the relationship becomes regular.
By appointing schools to manage condom education and distribution we are saying that parents, faith communities and schools themselves have failed to train a socially upright generation without taking recourse to wanton and untimely use of condoms by minors. When teachers, parents and the clergy say exposure of children to use of condoms is a sure warrant to indulge in sex I am sometimes compelled to sympathise.
Yes condoms prevent infections, but turning schools into condom distribution points, smacks of so much desperation. It is like we cannot think anymore. I know government is an amoral institution which takes its guidance from ethics alone where life is at risk. So you see, as long as condoms are scientifically proven to prevent infections and to protect life that is enough for governments to certify and promote or pay no attention and let use as some faith groups have learnt to do. But then where is our own morality as society especially if we also know that the same result and better could be achieved by training young people in self-control. Isn’t there a moral contradiction to designate schools as places which must instil social values and at the same time appoint them as condom dispensing units?
That said, what is really depressing is that young people will tell you that use of condoms is not good for responsible youth, that the best is to abstain when in reality they do not always abstain. They surely know what is right, they know what is good but they do not follow it. Pretty much the same is true with adults.
—The author is country director of Sightsavers Malawi, writing in his personal capacity.