When — if at all, to what extent and by whom — should we expose our children, adolescents and young adults to sex education?
I Choose Life Africa, a non-governmental organisation, has estimated the current sexual debut in Kenya for young people as 12.4 years.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, between June 2016 and July 2017, about 378,397 girls between ages 10 and 19 years accounted for teen pregnancies, being 15 per cent of the country’s teenage girls population.
In 2015, the new HIV infections of those between 15 and 24 years was 51 per cent, compared to the national average of 18 per cent while in 2018, it marginally dropped to 46 per cent.
Indeed, 13 per cent of HIV/Aids-related deaths countrywide were in the 15-24 bracket. This is as per the National Aids Control Council (2015).
The above screaming data legitimises the urgency of providing comprehensive, appropriate, properly organised and well-intentioned sex education to our children and youth.
Essentially, there are two competing sources of sex (mis)education.
The media, specifically television, shows movies which routinely convey sexual messaging.
Advertising and popular fiction habitually glorify sex. Many contemporary secular artistes, especially in their music videos and explicit lyrics, do the same.
The internet is awash with pornographic material. Children and youth have unhindered access to all these particularly through mobile phones.
Home assistants are also unintended providers of sex education. Misinformed peer sex education is the order of the day.
Traditionally, sex education should start in the safety of the home environment by parents.
By about five years, children have begun to sense about matters sex.
When there is a kissing scene on TV or other sex episode, they are told to shut their eyes to avoid tabia mbaya (bad manners).
The government is potentially the major agent, after parents, of sex education, especially through schools.
The religious sector can similarly offer morally relevant sex education.
The NGO sector and supportive media can be agents of life saving sexual and reproduction health education.
Residual traditional forms of sex education also exist. The youth can initiate informed peer education.
We premise our antipathy or rejection of sex education for children and young people on basically three arguments.
We fear their knowledge about sex will lead to practice.
We also argue sex education, just like use and availability of contraceptives, will promote immorality among them. Thirdly, religion advocates that legitimate sex can only occur within marriage.
From the above narrative, the dilemma is: even if the formal channels of sex education do not provide the information, non-formal channels will do so in a distorted manner.
Our clarion call of abstinence, to the majority of young people, remains unheeded.
Why do we feel guilty about sharing sex education with our children and youth even in private? Why is sex a taboo subject?
Let me tell you a true story. I will conceal the identities of the actors for privacy reasons. I will tell the story in their words.
"We decided to talk to our son who had joined the university about sex matters. Our suspicion was he was in active sexual relations.
I, after due consultations with my spouse, was sent to buy a condom. Upon reaching the supermarket, I became apprehensive about requesting for the item. By the time I made the purchase I was sweating.
Back home my wife and I summoned our son to our bedroom. We began a halting conversation about sex and its dangers.
We introduced the condom gadget to make the point that if one had to succumb to sex, protection was absolutely essential.
Our son laughed at our clumsiness. He said he knew a lot about sexuality.
They had a group of Christian young men who made it their business to learn about sex from a biblical point of view.
From his wallet, he shared what he called a Chastity Pledge. They had committed themselves to abstinence until marriage. I took a deep, deep breath." End of story.
Early on, I authored some articles in the Parents magazine targeting sex education for boys and girls.
My wife and I used them to initiate sex education among our children. The written word was a safe intermediary to hold a sensitive discussion.
When my wife was abroad as a student, I had to buy sanitary towels for our girls. This duty also gave me a window to discuss what sanitary towels use meant.
I remember one long cold night when I accompanied my growing children as a chaperon for their Carnivore date.
I was instructed to stay far from the theatre of date activity. That was okay. I knew eventually I would drive them home.
But I also knew a time would come when they would be on their own.
Only recently in Kenya did the country adopt the 2005 National Guidelines for the Provision of Youth-Friendly Services and the 2015 National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy.
These and other related policies are yet to be implemented in earnest especially in our schools.
Lucy Kangara in her paper, ‘Youth, Church and Sexuality in Kenya’, observes that: “The churches, even in the advent of HIV/Aids, are not comfortable discussing sexuality issues or creating a favourable space for the young adults within the church to explore their sexuality... The churches are still hiding behind the veil of morality.”
George Githinji in an article, ‘Why Sex Education in Kenya is Important for Children’ observes: “In Holland, children learn about relationships from as young as four years. The results are impeccable. Holland has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy, abortion and STD rates in Europe.”
As a country, we need to seriously revisit our sex education strategy among young people.
A robust multi-stakeholder comprehensive sex education programme in which parents, the government, faith institutions, relevant international institutions, NGOs, the youth, and communities are partners is the logical way to go.
This will enhance the capacity of our teenagers and youth to make informed decisions on sexuality.
The writer is Governor of Makueni County.