Opinionista Bonita Case 29 November 2019

The grim news about why our children need sex education

Parents opposing sex education, I appeal to you: think about what you’re doing.

There has been a huge to-do lately – a fight between a growing number of parents and the Department of Basic Education (DBE). What’s the furore about? These parents are outraged and vociferous in their opposition to the lesson plans currently being tested by the DBE in about 1,500 schools – Grades 4 to 12. The purpose of these lessons, as the DBE states, is to make learners “more aware of gender violence”.

A friend sent me an invitation to join a Facebook group – 100,000 members strong and growing fast – called #LeaveOurKidsAlone. This group is dedicated to stopping the DBE from implementing these plans and they have a list of “demands”. I was shocked. How could an educated friend have these views and believe they should be spread?

I explored the page, trying to understand the arguments of these 100,000 parents, virulently opposing sex education on gender-based violence. And they are not limiting their outrage to gender-based violence lessons, they are calling for sex education to all but banned. I’ll try to summarise their views and outline some counterarguments.

Only parents must teach children about sexuality, not the DBE or Life Orientation teachers.

Well, it would be great if all parents could do this, but mostly they do not or they cannot. Think about the mother in the townships or the gang-infested Cape Flats. The mother fighting for survival and to protect her children. Does she have the time, resources and even the knowledge to talk about sex with her children in an age-appropriate and sensitive way?

Even worse, in many cases the parents are a big part of the problem, teaching their children the very culture that gives rise to gender-based violence. How can a mother teach her son that violence and rape are wrong, when she herself is beaten and raped at home? How can a mother teach her daughter that she should tell a trusted adult and report rape to the police when she herself accepts it without question day after day?

And please do not imagine this problem is limited to poorer communities. I’m from a middle-class background. Throughout my childhood, my dad spoke to me with his hands. My mother, an intelligent, strong woman, was powerless to stop him. “Don’t you dare lift a finger to my daughter!” she would hiss. Yet he lifted his hand time after time. It only stopped when I was 15 and he pulled down my pants before a few of his friends and hit me repeatedly on my naked backside with his belt. I don’t remember what I’d done to deserve it at the time, but I ran away to live with my grandmother.

Sex education will encourage kids to have sex

I am truly stumped with this one. How, precisely, would sex education encourage kids to have sex? If they want to have underage sex, before they’re ready, they will have sex. At least sex education would give them the correct facts, rather than have them rely on some misinformation from their friends or the internet. Facts like the risks involved in unprotected sex; the role of peer pressure, and a plethora of other helpful things.

Sex education should only be taught in high school and it should be limited to ‘the biological aspects of reproduction’

I don’t even know where to begin with this belief. Perhaps using my own childhood will provide some insights into the sorts of crimes our children are enduring. Note that I was a child in a more innocent age – before the internet, social media and dangers such as online grooming, cyberbullying, slut-shaming and revenge porn. Bear in mind a girl, aged seven, can go into a restaurant toilet and get raped.

Here are a few examples of my childhood experiences:

Age 4: A fat, balding man with a big belly – one of my grandmother’s friends – breathes his stinking beer breath in my face as he thrusts his tongue in my mouth. He touches me where he should not. He puts a R2 coin in my money box when he is finally done. He does this often. I tell no one, because I don’t know what to say.

Age 12: First week of high school. The woodwork teacher pins me against a classroom wall, rubbing his erect penis hard against me. I push and squirm away and flee the classroom. Another time, he gets a pupil to call me out of my class, interrupting my lesson. The child leads me to the sickbay, where this teacher reclines on the bed. “I’m feeling sick, he says, stroking his penis. “Come and make me feel better.”

This forces me to tell my mother and she confronts the school principal. His response? “Mrs Case, if you don’t like it, send your daughter to another school. My first priority is to look after my teachers.”

Age 14: Rape. Though I refused to call it that until many years later. I couldn’t bear thinking about it or applying the word to myself. We’d often gather at a friend’s house after school as it was on our way home. The friend’s uncle was always in the background. Sometimes he’d talk to us. One day, my friends leave school ahead of me. Walking home, I see the uncle standing at the gate. “Come in,” he says. “Your friends are all here.” But the house is empty. He pins me down, forces himself on me. I don’t scream, I don’t try to push him off. “Just let him do what he wants so you can get out of here,” is all I can think. I run home and hide my blood-stained panties in the rubbish bin, so my mother won’t find them.

There was only one person I told. My best friend. When I’d finished, she told me about how she’d been raped – several times and by different men. We cried, we tried to console each other. But there was a sense of acceptance and resignation in the end. This is just what happens in our world.

Could I have benefited from lessons in the classroom that would have helped me understand and cope with all of this? Yes, please, without a doubt! We all want what’s best for our children. Surely providing knowledge – especially on difficult subjects – is fundamental?

Parents opposing sex education, I appeal to you: think about what you’re doing. Understand the arguments. A good place to start is this excellent piece by an expert, Professor Michael le Cordeur.

Recently, the brutal murders and rapes of women and girls like Uyinene Mrwetyana triggered a national outcry. We signed petitions, we marched, we demanded the government treat gender-based violence as a national emergency. We all shouted, “Enough is enough!”

Where are we now? Media attention has moved on and so have we – at least until the next story comes along that’s more horrific than most – like getting raped and killed in a post office. Then we’ll be angry about gender-based violence again.

Gender-based violence is a complex and stubborn problem. There a myriad of factors that give rise to it. But I believe the biggest change we can make is fundamentally changing our culture. The classroom is a good place to start. The younger the children are, the easier it is to influence their values. Boys must learn to respect girls, and that no truly means no. Girls must learn their value and prepare for what to do and where to go, should anyone try to harm them.

Where do you think all these victims and perpetrators are made? I’ve sad and grim news if you don’t get it yet: we are raising them in our homes. DM

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