OP-ED

Why we need a gendered and holistic approach to Life Orientation

By Cormac Smith 13 August 2019
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With the right approach, an entire generation can be fostered who fight for values such as gender equality, improved mental health access and inclusive ideals, says the writer.(Photo: Daily Maverick)

The decision by the Department of Basic Education to redevelop Life Orientation to include updated sex education is a welcome step forward in South Africa, but must be seen as a long-term process that is supported and continually monitored. By proactively engaging children and young adults in their formative years on topics such as inclusivity, sex, gender and mental health awareness, we could unlock tremendous potential that can have lasting positive effects in their later life.

While Life Orientation is aimed at teaching children and young adults about important skills and values to be used throughout life, it is abundantly clear that in its current form, it is grossly under-utilised and lacking current thinking on sex education and self-care. It has become a somewhat meaningless exercise for many school learners who miss out on invaluable opportunities to participate in safe spaces that encourage holistic and progressive learning.

Earlier this year in the United Kingdom, the Department of Education announced that compulsory health and relationship education is to be rolled out in English primary schools. In secondary schools, the new rollout will also include an updated sex education subject. Children in primary school will learn about relationships inclusive of LGBTQI, online safety, and the importance of mental and physical health and how they can intersect safety. Coming to this decision was a long-fought battle but based on evidence-based thinking and inclusive values.

The Department of Basic Education in South Africa has


indicated that the UNESCO International technical guidance on sexuality education will be used to guide their new programme. I noted how such a step should be taken in a column on men, masculinities and gender-based violence in August of 2018. The technical guidance makes a particular reference on engaging masculinities in pre and post-pubescent boys. It states: “a discussion of masculinity has been absent from many sexuality education programmes because masculinity is generally not perceived as problematic, yet boys feel that their needs and questions about their sexuality are not being addressed”.

Speaking to youth in townships around Gauteng, many have mirrored issues raised in the technical guidance in one form or another. They have spoken to the inadequacies of the current Life Orientation programme and how it doesn’t properly address issues relating to LGBTQI, sexual and reproductive health, mental health and emotional well-being.

LGBTQI youth spoke fervidly on the discrimination and abuse they face in school and beyond. Values of inclusivity are enshrined in the South African constitution yet far too many are being let down because of how they self-identify.

Boys and girls from very early ages are seeing and learning how people around them treat others and themselves. With intimate-partner violence being the most common form of gender-based violence, it dramatically increases the risk of children and young adults (especially young men) becoming abusive in their later years.

The evidence detailed by Unesco on comprehensive sex education (CSE) is growing in strength. Extensive research shows how a rights-based approach leads to short-term positive effects on knowledge and attitudes on rights within a sexual relationship; increased communication to parents about sex; and improved responses to risky situations. We also see “longer-term significant, positive effects found on psychosocial and some behavioural outcomes”.

It also highlights the importance of delivering the curricula as intended. Teachers will be on the frontline in providing these important lessons and must be given the full support of not only the state, but also parents, carers and civil society. We cannot build an effective and long-term approach if support and financial backing are not readily available or if key messages and lessons are diluted.

If such a comprehensive rollout was to be implemented and taken seriously, there must be open lines of communication between the Department of Basic Education, teachers and students. Students must be engaged on what they think is lacking in Life Orientation. Safe spaces for dialogue, where we can hear stories from youth about where and how they need more support, can easily be facilitated. I have seen how safe spaces can empower young people to voice their concerns and needs in a passionate and constructive manner.

We have the ability to go further than just an improved CSE programme.

The concept of African identity should inform Life Orientation classes. For example, the idea of gender was not an African concept. It was effectively tribalised into the African psyche by colonial powers. Kamau Muiga notes how “African social lives were also characterised by a diversity of sexual expression that found outlets outside the institution of heterosexuals marriage”. Cultural practices and tribal identity were rewired and “corrected” by conservative customary laws brought in by colonialists. The end result was ardent homophobia and gender-unequal practices where men became dominant. if there is a need to “decolonise” one’s mind, it would seem prudent then to teach African culture that isn’t sullied by archaic and colonial influences.

Holistic approaches on the issue of consent have shown very positive results in addressing sexual violence issues in universities in Ireland. These programmes can be refined and incorporated into school CSE curricula showing young people their rights on physical contact. Going further than consent, young men in secondary school can be taught about the importance of feminism and how movements like #MeToo and #TotalShutdown can fight against sexual violence, toxic masculinity and gender inequality. Engaging young men on these issues can show the hardships women face in daily life as well as the intersectionality between love, compassion and respect with improved mental health and relationship outcomes.

The benefits of children and young adults learning about empathy, emotions, anxiety, mental health, recognising anxiety in others, and much more cannot be overstated. There is a clear crisis in young people experiencing mental health challenges, with many unable or unwilling to talk about it, much to the detriment of their personal well-being.

Mental illnesses are deeply complex, but we can better inform children and young adults to recognise damaging feelings in themselves and others as well as teaching them mechanisms on how to mitigate effects and access professional care.

With many people having been raised without adequate sex education or taught the importance of mental health values, it can be exacerbated by addictive traits in technology and social media. Those who use technology as an escape to depression, anxiety or anger can be unaware of the further damage it may cause and place them in a dangerous cycle of dependency.

The use of pornography has normalised many young men’s sexual expectations, increasing the risk of toxic and possibly abusive relationships. There are also links between depression and pornography. Pornography is being accessed during youth and children’s most formative years when they are most vulnerable to develop mental health issues and addictive traits.

Parents, carers and teachers who are not tech-savvy are oblivious to the unhealthy amount of time their children spend on devices and the content they are viewing. If thousands of adults can be indoctrinated by online material, children and young adults will surely face similar dilemmas when gaining access to misleading or harmful content.

We have not kept up with the exponential growth of technology and access to online social media platforms. More and more children are using smartphones and tablets, giving them access to platforms that we know can be highly addictive. There is a growing danger that we are subjecting our children to a future where it becomes normalised to use technology as a response to mental health issues that they don’t understand rather than speak to family, friends or professionals.

Women and girls, and in many cases, men and boys, continue to face sexual violence and/or harassment in their workplace, in their school, on the street and in their homes. Children are supposed to feel safe at school, yet some have been subjected to violent and damaging abuse by other students.

Many studies and movements have identified key trends on gender-based violence, all of which point to similar indicators such as culture, socio-economic issues, masculinities and many more. Education interventions have sought to address this issue through CSE and progressive life orientation-like programmes.

We must invest in our children and youth outside of normal subjects like Maths and English. With the right approach, we can foster an entire generation who fight for values like gender equality, improved mental health access, and inclusive ideals. A generation who can recognise in themselves and others when something is not right and seek help.

We have the ability to do this on a global scale. Let us all contribute to a future where no child will be too scared to say how they feel. DM

Cormac Smith is a research and advocacy officer at the Southern African Liaison Office (SALO). He writes in his personal capacity.

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