This has by far been the most difficult column I have ever written; after all, I am defending government’s distribution of condoms to children that should be occupying their time with fantasies of pirates, princesses, cowboys and Peter Pan rather than what goes on in bed. In an ideal world, every child would have a mommy and a daddy that would alert their children to the fact that as fun as sex is, it has lifelong physical and psychological implications. But that is not the world we live in.
The fact that we live in a society where a child as young as twelve can legally terminate her pregnancy without the consent of her parents, the fact that consensual sexual activity between children aged 12 to 16 is legal, and that government proposes to give access to condoms to kids as young as 10 is not okay – it is symptomatic of a sick society. However, within the context of children engaging in sexual activity at younger and younger ages, where the majority of children are not given the necessary guidance around sex and sexuality by their parents, what option does government have but to legislate on something so intimate, so taboo?
As an unsullied, naïve, virginal first year law student, I was convinced that my future legal prowess and argumentation skill would reverse the law in relation to the death penalty and the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act 92 of 1996. “How could any government be so immoral as to allow a twelve-year-old to terminate a pregnancy without the consent of her parents?” I thought to myself. As for the death penalty, I was still of the opinion that putting someone to death for their crimes was the most effective deterrence for crime and that the tenet of an eye for an eye should apply.
Years later, the benefit of hindsight and being better informed has left me relieved at the fact that I have a much more salient and sensible understanding of these issues, at the centre of which lies our Constitution. It didn’t take years of brainwashing, propaganda or extensive reading for this graduation in thought, but rather a powerful and simple question from my lecturer at the time. As with any good question, he painted a poignant scenario: “Imagine a twelve-year-old has been raped by her father, who subsequently impregnates her. Imagine she has to obtain his and her mother’s consent for a termination of pregnancy, would that be fair to her? Or would it be fair to expect her to carry the child to full term, give birth and raise that child, a child that will be a persistent reminder of her father’s violation?”
This stark example shook me to my core and changed my perspective on the world. In as much as those opposed to termination of pregnancy will argue that the scenario painted by my lecturer is highly unlikely and would only occur in a very small number of extreme cases and can therefore not be the basis of a “pro-choice” justification, my retort is that their usual argument that “abortion is being used as a form of contraception” is equally as rare. However, more importantly, we really, as a society, need to ask ourselves why our legislators would have seen fit to have to draw up such a controversial and shocking provision within our legislation as early as two years into democracy.
Despite what many religious folk would tell you, government did not write this piece of legislation under the influence of a demonically induced fit of possession, nor did they suffer some social illness; this bit of legislation and many subsequent policies come as a response to a sick society where child abuse, child rape and the sexual exploitation of children is rife.
Recently, the morality police were up in arms over Judge Pierre Rabie’s ruling in the Pretoria High Court that two sections of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalised consensual sexual activity between children under the age of 16 years and above 12 years, was deemed invalid and inconsistent with the Constitution. Director of Children’s Rights organisation, The Teddy Bear Clinic – the applicant in this case – Shaheda Omar, described the ruling passed at the beginning of 2013 as a “victory for the rights of children”.
It is not that Shaheda Omar, the Teddy Bear Clinic or even people like me would want to see children engaging in sexual behaviour way before they are physically and psychologically equipped to; the mere thought is abhorrent. The sad fact is that because of society’s brokenness and prevalent social ills, increasing numbers of children – the applicable categorisation of young people aged between 12 and 16 years of age – are engaging in sexual activities with each other. With the previous provisions of the Sexual Offences Act, any person, be it parents, teachers or healthcare workers or doctors, who were aware of consensual sexual activities between children had to report the children to the police, or face possible prosecution themselves. This meant that rather than being able to extend the necessary counselling or reproductive health services to sexually active children, the law dictated that the matter be handed over to the police. The glaring gap here was rather than being able to access services that would protect these children from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, unsafe sexual behaviour would continue, concealed from the public eye.
The latest controversy comes in light of government’s most recent policy proposal that could see children from Grade 4 onwards being supplied with condoms as part of a sex education policy. The policy proposal, which has already been Gazetted, asks for public comment for twenty-one days since its publication. The policy would also make sex education for primary and secondary schools mandatory. It is also planned to have mobile clinics visit schools so that teachers and pupils can be tested voluntarily for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and TB. Basic Education Department spokesman Elijah Mhlanga says that the Aids pandemic called for drastic measures: “This is a matter of life and death, so we are not going to dilly-dally and waste time.”
Condoms, save for complete abstinence, remain the most effective way of protecting anyone from the transfer of sexually transmitted diseases and infections; however, you cannot just sow these latex prophylaxes as far as you find young people that may be sexually active. “The birds and the bees” conversation, when held effectively, does not simply address the biological nuts, bolts and consequences of the horizontal tango, it also deals with the emotional and psychological impact sex has on an individual. So it would be essential that the Department of Basic Education standardise the curriculum around sex education. If not, a pervert could easily warp information around sex, and so too can a prude preach morality yet fail to address the fact that their learners might be sexually active.
This has by far been the most difficult column I have ever written; after all, I am defending government’s distribution of condoms to children that should be occupying their time with fantasies of pirates, princesses, cowboys and Peter Pan rather than what goes on in bed. In an ideal world, every child would have a mommy and a daddy that would alert their children to the fact that as fun as sex is, it has lifelong physical and psychological implications. They would be able to contextualise pornography, meant for adult consumption but freely available via any digital device, they would warn against sexually transmitted diseases and would be able to explain that teenage pregnancy would irrevocably change their children’s – usually the girls’ – lives forever.
However, we live in the real world and in the real world, what would be the most moral and ideal handling of prepubescent sexuality, is unfortunately not the most practical. We are talking about kids being given condoms so that they do not infect each other with all kinds of STDs and STIs, or have children with each other. This only happens in a society where this is a regular occurrence.
In as much as we point to government and blame them for the poor police response to the drug problem in many of our communities, or we blame government for the lack of services in other areas that contribute to children having sex with each other, the real question we as ordinary citizens need to ask ourselves is: whose fundamental responsibility is it to protect and educate our children around sexuality?
Life in the 21st century leaves most parents with the responsibility of working longer, more demanding hours to put food on the table. But being a child’s caregiver comes with a greater responsibility beyond being a simple provider; you need to give guidance on issues like drugs, peer pressure and – as uncomfortable as it may be – sex. Children are by their nature curious and when they reach a certain age they become curious about what goes on beneath their underwear. Sadly, these curious questions are usually being answered by misinformed peers, pornography and adults that abuse many of these children. This is the social illness, the reality that most children in South Africa have been left to their own devices to answer the most basic, carnal questions they have.
It is not government, but ordinary people that sexually exploit our children. It is not government, but we as parents – and by extension society – that have tabooed sex talk and relegated it to the obsessions of the perverse. So if we really want to live in a country where the sexual interaction of children is not legislated on, we need to play our role and be that conduit for healthy sexual attitudes and behaviour in our children at an appropriate time. Ministers Motshekga and Motsoaledi aren’t the problem, we are. DM
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Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.