Offering sex education to school children as young as 12 is not bad after all. According to the findings of a study of a new programme on the provision of comprehensive sex education in schools, participating children were better prepared to deal with issues than those who had not participated.
The participants said they had better skills to delay sexual activity, to withstand peer pressure, and to support the use of condoms if they were unable to abstain from sex. Implemented by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with Centre for the Study of Adolescents (CSA) in 125 schools targeting children between 12 and 19, the programme has involved 13,000 students since its inception in 2006.
The programme is being implemented in Coast, Nyanza, Nairobi and parts of Central provinces. Four years into the programme, , an evaluation by the CSA and the ministry indicates that the students who received sex education through The World Starts With Me programme said they gained confidence to deal with sexual dilemmas and to secure a better future for themselves.
They were not shy about discussing issues of sexuality and were willing to postpone sexual activity until they had completed their studies. The programme content includes issues of puberty, adolescent experiences and how to deal with them, and sexual behaviour. Teenage pregnancy, HIV/Aids, and other sexually transmitted diseases are also part of the programme.
About 80 per cent of the young people who took part in the programme said they were willing to delay sex until marriage. Unlike those who did not participate in the study, they were aware that their current choices will shape their future.
Those interviewed said they did not have information on sexuality because no one was willing to inform them, and they were not confident about getting the information from their parents. Only three of 10 boys indicated willingness to discuss issues of sexuality with parents compared to five of 10 girls who said they would do so.
The students expressed distaste about condom use but said it was preferable to no protection at all if they found they could not abstain from sex. The 250 teachers who received training on how to discuss sexuality with students said they now have the courage to talk about the issues.
The findings were expected to generate debate, particularly because some religious groups are opposed to sex education in schools on the grounds it will corrupt the morals of young people. In the past decade, the government has been struggling how to deal with the issue.
The World Starts With Me programme was opportune. Last year, the ministry of Education circulated guidelines to schools, asking them to integrate life skills education into the curriculum, a term less emotive than sex education.
The new approach covers sexuality issues as well, but because there are few teachers trained to teach life skills while others are uncomfortable talking about sexuality, the government is working with NGOs to address the challenges. The findings of the Education ministry and CSA study are also emerging at time when there are concerns that Kenya might not realise Millennium Development Goal Three because of high dropout rates among girls due to teenage pregnancies.
While Goal Three seeks to “ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling,” many primary school girls are at great risk because they lack knowledge about sexuality, and how to defend themselves as well as access to contraceptives for those who cannot abstain.
Studies show that girls as young as 13 are getting pregnant when they are about to complete primary school and that girls as young as 12 who engage in sex have no knowledge about their own sexuality, do not use contraceptives, and that those who know the value of these contraceptives find it difficult to obtain them.
Other factors responsible for high teenage pregnancy rates in Kenya include the low socio-economic background of girls and their families; low maternal education; a family history of teenage pregnancies; the girls’ low sense of self-esteem; conflict situations or domestic violence; and poor or unsound housing.
Girls who drop out of school because of pregnancy suffer long-term disadvantages. They are unable to find employment, are under severe emotional and financial stress, and suffer from post-natal depression. All this can induce them to turn to sex as a means of survival, resulting in a vicious cycle of more children and poverty. And such girls are more vulnerable to being involved in violent relationships.
One school of thought holds that the way to reduce the high rates of teenage pregnancy is to offer comprehensive sex education, safe abortion and the possibility of returning to school to finish their educations. In countries like Australia where teenage pregnancy plummeted from 55.5 births per 1,000 women in 1971 to 16 births per 1,000 women in 2005, Women’s Watch, a local organisation, credited increased availability of contraception and accesses to abortion, rather than a decrease in sexual activity, to the decline.
Another study on how to reduce the rate of school dropouts from teenage pregnancy in the journal Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine indicated providing reproductive health education and school-based prenatal care can help reduce the number of girls leaving school early.