Young people have been cited as one of the key target groups to help reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. Speaking at the first ever Southern African Regional Students and Youth Conference (SARSYC) held in Harare in August, the Minister of Health and Child Care, Dr. David Parirenyatwa, said young people must be equipped with adequate information in order to curb the spread of the disease.
Adolescents aged 13 to 19 years of age are the most vulnerable to infection as they generally have little or no information about sexual and reproductive health. While schools play their part in trying to educate children, information is often vague, creating curiosity rather than imparting life-saving knowledge. Much still needs to be done to ensure young people are made fully aware of their choices as well as potential repercussions.
Sexual and reproductive health is a touchy subject in family institutions such as churches, most schools, and of course within the family itself. It is no surprise then that youth resort to peer-to-peer education, learning half-truths, speculations and incorrect information that leads to misinformed decisions.
According to the National Aids Council, at least 136,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years-old are living with HIV in Harare alone with girls worse affected. Tamisayi Chinhengo, the United Nations Peace Fund SARSYC representative, told Harare News, “We need to catch them young and teach them how to grow in their knowledge, even in primary school, before they begin to engage in risky sexual behaviour.”
Most parents are sceptical about having their children taught about reproductive health, fearing this might lead them to sexual activity at an early age. Marlene Mayhew, a mother of two girls expressed her discomfort about discussing the isse with her children. She also disapproves of access to contraceptives at school. “Teaching them to ‘play it safe’might suggest to them being active in the first place,” says Mayhew.
Mr Quince Chidzoka, a father of three boys, says as long as the teachers are qualified to teach on the subject, he would not mind his children learning about reproductive health. “We never got this kind of education at school in our time, but as long as the teachers know what they are talking about, my boys might as well learn from them than me,” he said.
Students say that health centres are not youth-friendly and find that nurses stare and ask intrusive questions if one enquires about contraception. A lower sixth girl who identified herself as Ruvimbo said it is an embarrassing task to even buy sanitary wear from a pharmacy never mind enquiring about reproductive health. She says she would rather learn from the personal experiences of her older friends.
Timothy Ndlovu an upper sixth student at a local college admitted not having much information on reproductive health but said that with the advent of technology, he can always Google information. “It’s not really necessary to learn about reproductive health at school as this might be uncomfortable when you can always Google it.”
Most schools were reluctant to elaborate on the degree of sexual and reproductive health taught to their students, pointing instead to the presence of Interact and AIDS clubs in the school, where young people get to discuss these issues under teacher supervision. But organisations like Students and Youth Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT) have taken it upon themselves to reach out to students in high schools and tertiary institutions in order to directly promote youth engagement. “We are ready to facilitate dialogue about the sexual and reproductive concerns of young people,” said Jimmy Wilford, director of SAYWHAT.