Gender activists have welcomed talks between the Gauteng departments of education and health about introducing contraception in schools.
“All provinces should ensure that contraception is provided to teenage pupils at schools and that condom distribution takes place,” said Remmy Shawa, of the gender advocacy organisation Sonke Gender Justice.
The two departments have been exploring ways to deal with the problem of teenage pregnancy.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said at the February 2014 launch of the government’s family planning campaign that every year 80 000 babies – 8% of the yearly total – were born to females younger than 18 years. And the national strategic plan on HIV and sexually transmitted infections estimates that 39% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have been pregnant at least once. According to the department of basic education, 20 000 pupils in primary and secondary schools fell pregnant last year.
One option considered to address teenage pregnancies is the recently introduced Implanon, a long-acting contraceptive that is implanted under the skin and can prevent pregnancy for up to three years.
Need for friendly health services
Shawa said collaboration between the two departments was “critical in ensuring that adolescents and young people not only have relevant education and information, but that they have access to quality youth friendly health services. The provision of contraceptives in schools will significantly contribute to the reduction of teenage pregnancies if they are provided in a friendly, safe and nonjudgmental manner.”
The health and education departments have been at loggerheads about the introduction of contraception at schools, for three years. In 2012, when the Integrated School Health Programme was launched, reports of the possible provision of condoms in schools sparked outrage among school governing bodies and religious organisations, who argued that this would only encourage sex between pupils.
But gender activists support the idea. “Teenagers will have sex. Government has a big role to play in not only educating teenagers but providing them with access to contraception,” Shawa said.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, among the underlying causes of teenage pregnancy were the unavailability of contraception, age-appropriate sex education nor reproductive health services.
Research shows that making condoms available in schools does not increase sexual activity among pupils, but it does decrease the rate of unprotected sex among those who are sexually active.
Education must start at a young age
Nelisiwe Hlope of the Soul City Institute, a nonprofit health organisation, said children as young as three should be taught about sex and “schools should reinforce what has been communicated at home”.
According to Shawa, sex education “forms the foundation for young people to make healthy decisions in their sexual lives” and could contribute to the reduction of unplanned pregnancies and transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“We encourage schools to teach youth about the importance of using condoms not only to prevent pregnancy but also to prevent and reduce HIV transmission,” she said.
It was important that female and male condoms were available as the former “give girls and women additional control in their sexual and reproductive health, and should be provided to them as an option”.
Persomé Oliphant is a Bhekisisa fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA.