Thabang Pooe: Let’s talk about babies

Most of us have had “the talk”. I will never forget mine. I was 13 and washing dishes when my mum walked in and said “Nana, now that you have your periods, if you have sex you will fall pregnant or catch a disease and die”. I was terrified and that one conversation kept me away from boys. The more I talk to friends, they describe varied approaches adopted by their parents, teachers and generally people in their lives. But one thing is clear – most of us were not given enough information to make sound and responsible decisions about our bodies.

The 2017 General Household Survey by Stats SA stated that an estimated 15 740 learners fell pregnant in the previous year – that’s roughly 43 every day. These numbers are monitored from as early as Grade 3.

Approximately one-fifth of South African women in their reproductive ages (15-49 years) are HIV positive. The prevalence rates of HIV and pregnancy are both evidence that there is sexual activity among young people – and that young girls don’t know how to protect themselves.

In March 2018, the department of basic education published the policy on Management of Learner Pregnancy, which seeks to address the high rate of pregnancy among learners within the context this occurs in – the familial and social context.

It further seeks to provide options for reducing unintended and unwanted pregnancies, management of the pre- and post-natal implications, limitation of associated stigma and discrimination and the retention and re-enrolment of affected learners into school.

Of significance, and the subject of much debate, is that this policy seeks to ensure the accessible provision of information on prevention, choice of termination of pregnancy, care, counselling and support, frameworks for impact mitigation and guidelines for systematic management and implementation. It aims to do this through the provision of quality comprehensive sexuality education, or CSE.

The UN Fund for Population Activities defines CSE as: “A right-based and gender-focused approach to sexuality education, whether in school or out of school. CSE is curriculum-based education that aims to equip children and young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will enable them to develop a positive view of their sexuality, in the context of their emotional and social development by embracing a holistic vision of sexuality and sexual behaviour, which goes beyond a focus on prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.”

CSE is not about encouraging children to have sex but is about ensuring that all the right information is at children’s disposal, so they can make better decisions, seek assistance and understand their bodies.

The provision of CSE has been in the news with various education stakeholders coming out on different ends of the spectrum. The National Association of School Governing Bodies was quoted saying they had a problem with the proposal, with its general secretary Matakanye Matakanye saying that schools were not platforms for such talks. “The government has been giving our children the licence to do all the wrong things – it must be stopped. It is due to the same government’s policies that we find ourselves with such problems. As parents, we are well capable of teaching our children about morals at home.”

Gender activist and chairperson in rural education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Lebo Moletsane, however, said this was a good move. “This is good as it could save lives in terms of avoiding unsafe abortions, and around young people having unplanned pregnancies and the consequences thereof.”

In support of the policy, teacher union South African Democratic Teachers’ Union general-secretary Mugwena Maluleke said that “[at] the end of the day it’s just information. We’re not conducting abortion as schools, but providing information … To arrest [learner pregnancies] we have to use education to share information.” While Simphiwe Mpungose, general secretary of the Educators’ Union of SA, said that the department should rather channel the money to paying teachers better salaries.

Education expert Professor Labby Ramrathan, the director at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Education Studies was quoted as saying that the policy would not work because it would increase teachers’ workloads. “I believe the department should leave parents to teach their children about such things.”

It is clear the provision of CSE is a crucial element of the pregnancy policy – and without some sort of consensus, implementation will be difficult. And by failing to reach consensus we impact negatively on young people’s rights and health; we violate their rights of access to healthcare services, including the right of access to reproductive health services and basic education.

Evidence from local studies shows that CSE that is age-appropriate, gender-sensitive, and rights and life skills-based can provide young people with the knowledge, skills and efficacy to make informed decisions about their sexuality and lifestyle. When young people are equipped with this information, when they have developed skills in decision making, negotiation, communication and critical thinking; and have access to counselling and health services that are non-judgemental, they are better able to:

- Take advantage of educational and other opportunities that will impact their lifelong wellbeing;

- Prevent unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions;

- Improve their sexual and reproductive health and protect themselves against STIs, including HIV; and

- Understand and question social norms and practices and contribute to society.

We all accept that learner pregnancy is a huge problem and the consequences thereof – particularly for young girls – are often irreversible. Unwanted learner pregnancies must therefore be eliminated if we are serious about our children’s rights and education. We believe firmly that one of the means through which this can happen is through CSE – giving our children information that is age appropriate, comprehensive and gender sensitive.

These conversations must happen at home, at schools, at church ... essentially, everywhere.

- Pooe is a senior researcher at Section27

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