By Dr. Patricia Machawira
The recent picture of a first year University of Zimbabwe student 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 she should 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, that what she is doing is damaging to her internal organs. 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 Zimbabwe, 7000 girls dropped out of school due to pregnancy and child marriage in 2018. In the same year South Africa had 117 000 girls and Malawi 85 000 girls in the 10-19 year bracket fall pregnant. In Namibia, (a much smaller country) 3 500 pupils have fallen pregnant in the last two years. It is not just teenage pregnancy that is concerning. With 200 new infections daily among adolescent girls and young women in South Africa, 44 infections daily in Tanzania and 107 daily in Mozambique, HIV poses a real and growing threat to the health and wellbeing of our young people.
These statistics are hardly surprising because our young people leave our 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 years old with age appropriate and culturally relevant knowledge and skills to make responsible choices about their lives through sexuality education. Some may argue that age 10 is too early. But do they know that the data tells us that more young people are falling pregnant in the last two grades of primary school than in the first two grades of secondary school? This implies that we need to start talking to young people early to ensure that we instill positive behaviours. The UN International Technical Guidance on sexuality education is an evidence-based guide that 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. Sexuality education prepares young people for a safe, productive, fulfilling life in a world where gender-based violence, gender inequality, early and unintended pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) still pose serious risks to their health and well-being.
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. Numerous studies have proven when that ‘abstinence-only’ education is taught as the only approach to sexuality it is not effective in preventing young people from having sex, nor does it lead to healthier practices. When we teach young people sexuality education, it is important to include information that is relevant for young people who choose to abstain from sex as well as those who are already sexually active.
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 including access to condoms, contraceptives, HIV counselling and testing, HIV/STI 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. If we did this well, perhaps the promising life of a first year student would not have ended in such a gruesome and no doubt excruciating way. Perhaps this young woman’s parents could have been spared the agony of burying their child; of a promising life that was cut short. It is often said that when we know better we should do better. With such a wealth of evidence pointing us to a clear path to providing our young people with the best quality education that sets them in good standing to be healthy and productive global citizens can we really afford not to do everything in our power to give them exactly what we know works?
For more on the Let’s Talk! campaign visit; www.letstalkeup.com
Patricia Machawira is UNESCO’s Regional HIV and Health Advisor for Eastern and Southern Africa region.