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Yes, sex education please, we’re in school

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

Whether we like it or not, most difficult conversations on sex education do not take place in the home. That’s why responsibility now rests on schools to act as substitute parents.

The purpose of this article is not to comment on what went wrong in the process between the national Department of Basic Education and role players such as teachers’ unions. I was also not consulted by the department, but that does not mean I don’t have an opinion.

Gender violence

I would like to repeat what I said recently on RSG radio station: the current debate on whether sexual counselling should take place at school, and thus should be included in the school curriculum or not, requires quiet reflection and a calm approach. This article is primarily about what should be taught to our children and whatnot. My focus is thus purely taken from a curriculum viewpoint.

The debate follows on the written sex education lesson plans currently being tested by the Department of Basic Education in about 1,500 schools. According to a statement, the idea is to make learners “more aware of gender violence”.

South Africa has recently been hit by a spate of gender violence with especially women and children becoming the prey of unscrupulous sexual exploiters. The government’s initiative to supply teachers with prescribed lesson plans must be seen in this context.

Absent father

I agree that it is parents’ prerogative to inform their children on the sensitive issue of sex. Parents can start from age four, familiarising their children with the correct names of their sexual organs and explaining to them that these parts of their bodies are private. No-one should touch them except themselves, their parents or a doctor during an examination. Children must be taught from a young age that, should the opposite occur, they must immediately report it to their parents.

But that is in an ideal world. The reality is far removed from this.

Because, whether we want to know it or not, in most households in South Africa, and indeed in the world, this does not happen and the difficult conversations about sex education do not take place because family structures have changed. About 62% of all children grow up without a present father. In the absence of their first natural protector, many children are exposed to unscrupulous villains.

No improvement

As sad as it is to say this, we must openly admit that society has let down our children. That is the cause of the scourge of gender violence afflicting our country at the moment.

The gruesome murders of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana and Clanwilliam teacher Allison Plaatjies are just two recent incidents that would make any parent lie awake at night worrying about his or her daughter. That is why these conversations must take place, so our communities can know what is going on.

There is much criticism of the explicit nature of the sex information. Parents must, however, remember that we are talking here of the teachers’ guide and not of the learners’ textbooks.

The information is also not completely new: it already appears in the biology subject curriculum, while sex education and instruction about prevention of HIV has been part of the subject life orientation (LO) since 2000. Nevertheless, the number of HIV cases as well as the number of teen pregnancies increases annually – with as many as 100,000 in 2017. Thus, there is no noteworthy improvement in the behaviour of learners.

Empower teachers

The prescribed lesson plans are an honest attempt by the Department of Basic Education to ensure the same content is presented in every grade in every school to protect learners from misinformation.

The content of the teachers’ guide aims to protect children against sexual abuse. About 35% of girls younger than 17 years of age are abused by older men. Thus, the aim is to supply scientifically accurate, age-appropriate and culturally linked education on a very sensitive issue.

The lesson plans do not encourage boys and girls to masturbate; they inform children that masturbation is a normal function of the human body. Children must also be educated in an adult and discreet manner that there is nothing bad about it, as long as it is practised in the privacy of his/her own space.

Similarly, the content on homosexuality is in line with the Constitution. It is really about empowering the teachers.

The role of parents

This does not, however, mean parents must sit back and leave everything in the hands of teachers. It remains a challenge to present the information to the learners in an age-appropriate way. Most experts I have spoken to agree that the age information is in most cases age-appropriate.

If parents feel differently, they and the total education community can play a role to find the right choices. Community leaders and spiritual leaders can, along with the principal, teachers, governing bodies and parents reflect on what communal values should, in their opinion, be taught at the school.

My experience is that the department will have no problem co-operating with the school community to find a suitable education package for learners.

It is also true that many teachers are uncomfortable with presenting these lessons, for whatever reason. Some avoid it, others have religious objections and others convey their own distorted views to the learners. Therefore, I want to recommend, as a priority, that at every school specialised LO teachers be appointed.

At most schools, there is no coordination or monitoring of this subject. Preferably there should be two teachers: one male and one female. As I have indicated above, most boys grow up without a father figure and crave a male role model. The same goes for girls. We can no longer mess with children’s lives by sharing out the LO periods between any teachers with a “free” period.

What do the youth say?

Finally, it is probably wise to listen to the youth and here I refer to the letter of a 17-year-old girl in Rapport on 10 November 2019. In the letter, she advises the “Ooms and Tannies” to relax. Sex education, she says, is not going to make the youth more sexually active. What youth plead for is correct information so they can make informed decisions.

Many parents project their own inability to communicate with their children onto the school, instead of taking the hands of the educators.

The Department of Basic Education will have to assume responsibility for regular monitoring and ensuring that the correct information is conveyed by each teacher. Together, the department and the parent community can ensure children gain appropriate knowledge.

After all, knowledge is power. DM

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