Itumeleng Letsoalo is a Global Citizen Fellow and content writer in South Africa. Here, she explains why South Africa’s decision to expand its sex education programme is empowering for young people — especially girls — and why she finds the backlash against the decision so frustrating.
When reports came out a few months ago that South Africa’s Department of Basic Education will be expanding the Comprehensive Sexuality Education curriculum in the Life Orientation subject, my first thoughts were for the little girls who would have the opportunity to learn about their bodies.
The programme expansion means that children will learn about the importance of consent, about how their bodies are theirs, and about how to recognise sexually inappropriate behaviour.
As many women and girls in South Africa know, there is an excruciating pain that comes with being violated but not having the words to express it, because you don’t even know what this part of your body is and what it is meant for.
This is why we often hear people coming out to say: “I was raped when I was 8”. So often these people, realising only later what happened to them, are burdened with shame over their delay in speaking out instead of being supported.
Expanding the sex education programme in schools will help protect children and their bodies from sexual violence, by teaching them what is and is not appropriate.
So it’s frustrating for me that parents and organisations such as the Concerned Young People of SA (CYPSA) and the Freedom of Religion SA have been retaliating against the curriculum, saying that teaching children about their bodies will lead to an early interest in sex.
The backlash has been so determined that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has announced that parents have the choice to opt their children out of the sex education curriculum. To me, this is one step forward and 10 steps back.
Reports say that the curriculum for Grade 4 to Grade 12 learners will also cover issues like masturbation, gender non-conformity, and single-parent families.
Quite frankly, these — along with the issues of consent and inappropriate sexual behaviour I mentioned above — are, to my mind, some of the most important topics in enforcing body autonomy for girls.
The Department of Basic Education has dismissed critics’ claims about encouraging an interest in sex among children — and made details about the lesson plans public in an attempt to ease fears regarding the content of the curriculum.
In a media statement last month, the department highlighted the need for the provision of age-appropriate sex education for children — citing high birth rates among adolescents and teenagers, and the fact that more than a third of girls and boys (35%) experience sexual violence before the age of 17.
“This has necessitated the great need for the department to provide age-appropriate child abuse prevention education that builds resilience, confidence, and assertion amongst young people, who often do not know when they are being violated by sexual predators,” said the department.
“The lessons focus on teaching about the respect for self, for the body of others, and most importantly, for children to identify inappropriate physical interactions,” it added.
The department also responded to “a certain organisation” that it says is persisting in “misleading the public by publishing the wrong information resulting in unnecessary confusion and panic among South Africans.”
I was 10 years old when Life Orientation became one of my compulsory subjects in school. My teacher, Miss Michelle, taught us about HIV/AIDS, drugs and substance abuse, nutrition and the food pyramid, and physical education.
The curriculum continued in the same way until I got to High School — but then Life Orientation became a “free period” for us because it was felt that we weren’t being taught anything new or worthwhile.
Meanwhile, there was more than one pregnant girl in every grade, and the boys were watching porn in the corridors.
By the time most of our parents think it’s appropiate for us to learn about sex, it is unfortunality too late for some.
After the new curriculum was announced, the South African Teachers Union’s operational director Johan Kruger spoke out against it too — telling the media that teachers wouldn’t be comfortable teaching it.
This is one of the many examples of barriers that stop us moving forward in sex education, protecting children and teenagers, and empowering girls and young women by teaching them about their bodies.
The new approach to Comprehensive Sex Education was based, according to the Department of Basic Education, on intensive reports and other comprehensive research.
According to the department, the 2016 review of International Technical Guidelines on Sexuality Education found that, contrary to popular belief, CSE does not sexualise children, nor does it increase sexual activity.
It does however delay sexual debut, promote safe sexual behaviour, and increase knowledge of different aspects of sexuality.
This education too would have definitely led to less discomfort for my schoolmates who openly identified as queer.
I remember them constantly being harassed with questions like: “Are you a girl or a boy?”, and “How do gay people have sex?”
But they had no source of information to answer either these questions or their own questions about their bodies and sexuality, because all we were taught is that “a boy meets a girl” and a “penis goes inside a vagina”.
A 2016 policy brief by Rhodes University suggests that Life Orientation (LO) teachers be given training to help those that believe homosexuality to be unnatural or immoral to challenge those beliefs.
“LO teachers should be trained in dealing with sexual and gender diversity, in order to avoid marginalising lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and gender queer youth,” says the brief.
The brief further states that sex education should move away from prescribing certain fixed gender roles to young learners, and instead highlight fluidity and empowerment.
While CSE has caused a lot of uproar, there is no denying that the curriculum can do more good than bad, and will be beneficial to our society.