What would you do, as a parent, if your teenage child came home one day with a clutch of condoms in his or her hands?
I am delving into this debate on the back of an article that was recently published in Zimbabwe’s local media that reports that the National AIDS Council (NAC) is considering distributing condoms within schools as a way of helping to curb the spread of HIV among young people.
Reactions to the article – as posted on a local HIV discussion forum, Partners Zimbabwe – have so far been split quite distinctly between the ‘pro condoms’ and ‘anti condoms’ camps.
One contributor noted the following: “This is just outrageous. Whatever the motive is clearly does not support abstinence as one primary prevention method. Rather than introducing condoms in schools, NAC should consider sexual education and awareness raising in schools. It is more prudent to lobby for condom use in the workplace but surely we should not divert children’s attention from basic education.”
Another contributor against the idea said, “I have no problem seeing my kid with a condom that s/he either bought or got from another distribution channel, not the school! In fact, I would then want to know whether they know what they are used for and how they are used.” The contributor then continues to say, “I would then reinforce the positive practices, always insisting that abstinence (for a school-going kid) comes atop of faithfulness to one partner and condomising.”
While this represents just a small snippet of the views against the policy, I think it’s safe to say that many parents feel uneasy about their children practising anything but abstinence as adolescents. Culture and religion would have us believe that all young people remain virgins – as far as they have control over their sexuality – until they pass their teens.
But this is not true – for if it were, how could we talk of the countless cases of young girls who fall pregnant while in high school; or others who have unsafe abortions and cause themselves serious damage, or even die?
As a teenager, I had a very clear stance on sex. Because of my religious (Christian) views and a strong appreciation of what maturity a sexual relationship required, I abstained. I was and remain very proud of this and so yes, I do believe that young people can abstain from sex if they feel strongly about doing so; and more importantly, if they are given the option to do so. Unfortunately, rape and sexual abuse and coercion often force young people into sex before they are ready for it.
But while I was abstinent, I am very aware that not all of my friends or peers were. Some were having sex by 15 or 16 and others were considering it. Eventually, a girl I knew quite well fell pregnant at age 19 and after three failed attempts to abort the foetus (using traditional medicines prescribed by a backdoor doctor) got married to a man she wasn’t really sure she loved. Her family felt it would be less shameful if she married than if she chose to be a single mother.
While I hope she is much more content now, I often wonder what a condom might have done in her scenario. Had she been taught about HIV prevention and use of condoms; had she known more about contraception and been taught that if she was going to have sex, the safest thing to do was use a condom to avoid sexual infections and unplanned pregnancy, how differently might her fortunes have played out?
In short, I am saying NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO MORALISE! We could help so many young people by making condoms readily available to them. Some people believe that making condoms or other contraceptives easily accessible only helps to make young people more sexually curious and willing to experiment. But studies worldwide have shown that increased access to condoms and contraceptives raises use among sexually active young people, but does not make those who are abstaining more likely to start having sex.
If I had had access to condoms as a young person, I don’t think that this would have played any role in increasing my desire to have sex. Of course, I might have taken a few packs and opened them up to see what they looked like, but I wouldn’t have found further need for them beyond that. In fact, at just about every conference I attend now as an adult, I always get given bags of condoms. I do accept them, even though I am not sexually active and keep them to distribute to those who are. Having a condom in your possession does not mean you will use it. But it comes in handy when you do need to.
Condoms are not the problem here. And if people would be honest enough, I think it’s simply the idea that their children are having sex that freaks them out. Many parents are still loathe to broach the topic of sex and sexuality within the home and so fear that by having their children learn things from elsewhere, they will get all the wrong information.
Well, that is indeed ironic.
And it is even more ironic when we consider the effect that HIV is having on our young people. According to a new report released in June by UNICEF, 5 million young people worldwide (in the 15-24 year age category) are living with HIV. Over half of them – 2.7 million to be exact – are in east and southern Africa. Girls make up more than two-thirds of the total. It is well known that women and girls are far more predisposed to HIV infection than their male counterparts and this is why protecting them is so important.
We also know that many girls get infected through having relationships with older men who may demand that sex be performed without protection. Since such relationships tend to have an element of exchange (ie. sex for money, food, clothes, luxury, etc), many of these girls will not have the power to demand the use of condoms. We also know that yet more girls are only sexually active because they are caught in a trap of rape and sexual abuse. Once more, the use of condoms among these girls represents a horribly insensitive response to their plight.
But what about those young women and girls who willingly engage in sex? What about the ones who lose years of vital education because they have babies and drop out? What about protecting them?
There has recently been a proliferation of sexual and reproductive health services, or ‘safe spaces’, for young people because of the stigma that they often face when they try to get help at adult health services. But they are still few and far between because of that big cultural taboo of accepting that young people do have sex.
We need to work to reverse this if we want a healthy generation into the future. And that’s why I am giving condoms in schools (and I mean secondary schools) a thumbs up. But I don’t mean that they should just be shoved into school toilets – no, young people should go through formal sex education and be taught more than just what sex is, but the emotional, spiritual and social aspects to sex and sexuality. They should also know where they can get tested for HIV and what options they have if they get a sexual infection or if they get pregnant. This, I find is still lacking in many places around the world – last year, I wrote about this and found that many people learn about sex from peers and other informal or didactic channels, thus peddling myths and misinformation.
We really do need to tell young people about sex because it’s a bit like that analogy of the stolen sugar – it always tastes sweeter than the sugar that you can have. If we choose to be honest with young people, we demystify a lot of things. We open space for them to ask the questions that they ordinarily get incorrect answers to from their (usually) equally clueless friends. We begin to get real.
And if we start there and tell them that yes, abstinence is the safest choice but that if they cannot abstain, they should use condoms, we finally start to address reality. Sex will happen with or without our moral sanctioning of it. It would just be better if it happened safely.