OPINION: Age appropriate sex education can be life saving
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a lot of adolescents and young people remain and stay in homes: some are bored at home and always on their phones, trying to connect with each other during this period.
It is saddening that everyday we hear of injustices that adolescents and young people in all our diversities are going through in Kenya.
Access and enjoyment to the highest standard of health care is important to all adolescents and young people including LGBTQ+, persons with disabilities, persons who inject drugs, young people from marginalized areas.
Some of the social, reproductive and health issues that young people in Kenya are facing include little or no access to free range and affordable contraceptive information and services such as condoms; high rates of adolescents and teenage pregnancy; lack of information on menstruation health management (MHM); lack of education on sex and sexuality; no access to safe abortion for sexual violence survivors or post abortion care; drug and substance abuse; HIV/AIDDs, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unavailable ante-natal care (ANC) services, harmful practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage as wells as sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) including child abuse.
Chapter 4 of the Bill of Rights Article 35 states that every citizen has the right of access to information held by another person and required for the exercise or protection of any right or fundamental freedom. Access to information enables one to make informed decisions about their personal lives at present and even in the future.
Access to verified, quality and comprehensive information is one of the most sustainable and best way to ensure we reduce on some of the negative outcomes when it comes to reproductive health and health in general.
Age appropriate comprehensive sex education provides information pertaining reproductive health for instance body changes, friends and relationships, culture, human rights, pregnancy for girls and boys, protection against STIs and HIV, self esteem, life skills, future dreams and plan, gender based violence among many others.
As a country we need to acknowledge that young people are engaging in sexual activities and are vulnerable to teenage pregnancies as well as many other reproductive health challenges.
We should protect them and ensure they make well informed choices about their health and general well being.
By providing them with age appropriate comprehensive sex education we will be able to give them a chance to make decisions about their own bodies, own these decisions and choose to be safe and healthy.
Throughout my work with availing and providing reproductive health information, I propose the following steps for parents who may want to speak to their children about sex:
Grade 1-3: Conversation on parts of the body including private parts, child rights, abuse and protection, bad and good touch, reproductive health hygiene, urinary tract infection (UTI), basis of social relations, how to deal with strangers and family, all spheres of stigma and discrimination, appropriate friendships, drugs and substance abuse, adherence to medication and good values.
Grade 4-5: Diseases and infection – HIV, Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs), relationships, child protection-rape, sexual harassments, SGBV, values, life skills, human rights, puberty, body image, gender-roles, norms and equality.
Grade 6 onwards (secondary, university, adulthood: Reproductive health, STI/STDs including HIV, healthy relationships, pregnancy, puberty-menstruation, hygiene, copulation, sex, asexual and sexual, how to protect ourselves, abstinence, contraceptives, condoms, gender based violence, drugs and substance abuse, reproductive health – reproduction, HIV-stigma, adherence, preventive measures and transmission, technology, human sexual rights, consent privacy and bodily integrity, how and where to get Sexual Rights and Health Rights (SRHR) information, SGBV, advanced social relations and tolerance, inclusion and respect among others.
Young people should receive medically accurate, fact based information about SRHR in a structured manner and in a safe environment.
Information from parents bridges the gap
Access to such information from parents bridges the gap and encourages honest conversations between parents and their children, which helps them make decisions especially in today’s society where the economic demands have seen most parents get busy with work.
Traditional and social media are some of the sources of incorrect information which have been influencing the perception and decisions of most young people.
Stigmatizing or mystifying sex education only raises curiosity: it’s time to speak up! Living in denial and burying our heads in the sand will not cut it.
Speaking about sex should not be seen a taboo; it should not be seen as it will increase sexual behaviors and activities among young people. Sex and sexuality education is not only about sex, but also social and health issues that young people are facing.
In fact, comprehensive sex and sexuality education greatly encourages abstinence but also recognizes that human sexuality is a perfectly natural part of life therefore it seeks to impart knowledge, attitude, skills and values so that young people learn to make appropriate and healthy choices.
Comprehensive sexuality education has constantly been subjected to opposition, myths and stereotypes which have led to misunderstanding of what it entails.
Addressing issues around rights of the sexual minorities such as LGBT+ is important to ensure no violence or discrimination is witnessed.
Access to comprehensive sexuality education should be a lifelong process: it should be age-appropriate, fact-based and medically accurate, culturally competent and can come from many sources, including parents, family, peers, school, and community.
The ministries of Education and Health, together with other stakeholders like, parents, communities should ensure access and provision to age appropriate sexuality education, especially during these times when we have a lot of young people at home.
These actors need to avail information as they work through community systems, online platforms, health facilities, churches and the media.
Alvin Mwangi is a Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) advocate in Nairobi, Kenya