More than a dozen protesters disrupted the International Aids Conference on Wednesday morning demanding government ensure the provision of free condoms and sanitary pads in school in a move that left Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi largely speechless.
Chairing the day’s opening session, Motsoaledi was about to introduce the meeting’s next speaker in front of hundreds of international delegates when activists rose from their seats in the darkened auditorium. Singing and carrying placards bearing slogans, such as "Over 50 missed days of school", protesters snaked their way to the front of the room as activist Ntombi-Zodwa Maphosa walked on stage.
"No, no, no – this session is not about this," Motsoaledi could be heard saying.
It is unclear whether conference organisers then shut off microphones during the demonstrations but protesters soon began chanting, "Open the mics".
Maphosa then read aloud a declaration signed by almost 100 young people nationwide calling on the government to ensure that compressive sex education and free condoms and sanitary pads are available in schools.
The country’s current policy on condoms in schools leaves the final decision about whether to provide the prophylaxes in schools up to school governing bodies.
Maphosa says this is insufficient.
"The school governing body still needs to decide whether to implement [the policy] or not and of course parents are not really going to like that idea," says Maphosa, who works with Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and public interest law organisation Section27. "We would like the government to use the power it has already to just implement the policy because this is a need, and more and more young people are getting infected."
Almost a quarter of new infections in South Africa occur in women between the ages of 15 and 24 years, according to the Human Science Research Council's latest HIV household survey.
Missing pads mean months of lost days in the classroomThe declaration also calls for the provision of free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.
"Most young women in disadvantaged areas can’t afford pads, they are quite expensive, so they would use things like cloth, sand and leaves," Maphosa explains. "You have to basically stay at home because you feel uncomfortable going to school."
Maphosa alleges that TAC and Section27 research has found that some South African school girls may miss as much as two months of school each year due to a lack of sanitary pads.
In an opinion piece recently published in the Mail & Guardian, Section27 director Mark Heywood criticised the Department of Basic Education for what he described as a lack of political will to address HIV.
"The rates of HIV infection in schools and teenage pregnancy tell us that young people are having sex," he wrote.
"Knowing this means we have a clear target for intense, focused HIV prevention campaigns," he added. "Yet we dilly and we dally and give in to conservative sectors rather than starting up a serious dialogue with them.
"It is not against the law for young people to have sex with each other, but we are still without a policy on condom access in schools."
The Department of Basic Education’s latest draft policy on HIV, sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis recommends providing male and female condoms to all learners, as well as HIV counselling and testing as well as dual contraception to older pupils. The policy was released for public comment in 2015.
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