Sometimes adults get things right. And at other times they get it wrong, extremely wrong. It is my belief that the Ministry of Health’s communiqué on the use of condoms in secondary high school is one of those ‘extremely wrong’ moments. The communiqué, published on Wednesday, sought to clarify the government’s position on whether it should avail condoms in the country’s high schools in order to fight against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.
In the communiqué, the Minister of Health, Dr Agnes Binagwaho said, “the Ministry of Health would like to make it clear that our position as a government is to encourage sexual reproductive health education in our secondary schools, aimed at opening the minds of our youth to the dangers associated with early sexual encounters as opposed to distribution of condoms. The young generation still in secondary school should be mindful of the dangers associated with early sexual encounters and strive to adhere to the preventive measures recommended within reproductive health education curriculum, which will provide life skills and empower them to say no to sex until the right time”.
I have so many issues with her statement that I wonder whether I will have enough space in this column to fully express them.
Let me begin with this snippet. She wants to “encourage sexual reproductive health education in our secondary schools, aimed at opening the minds of our youth to the dangers associated with early sexual encounters”. That is well and good. Except, I am left wondering, “what is the point of teaching them about the dangers of early sexual encounters, and then not giving them all the tools to combat these dangers”? Yes, some teenagers will not have sex because they will have had the wits scared out of them with the thoughts of diseases, babies and social stigma. But, having been a teenager once I know that scare tactics aren’t successful one hundred percent of the time. Some teenagers simply want to have sexual relations come hell and high water- which is why statistics show that as many as 614 school girls got pregnant last year.
In fact, the sexual reproductive health education these kids learn can end up causing a problem. For instance, different methods of contraception could be taught, such as the ‘withdraw’ method and ‘counting’ the menstruation cycle (to compute what days are ‘safe days’-when ova cannot be fertilized by sperm). And knowing kids, they WILL try to put their knowledge into action. What happens next? You can all guess.
Honestly, I feel like this policy is grounded in cultural bias and not science. Certainly no parent wants to imagine their teenage sons and daughters having sex but here is a fact that we can’t avoid; we are living in a highly sexualized world and kids aren’t unaffected by this. While it might be unseemly to provide condoms to 15 year olds, what we have to deal with is the facts on the ground and not with the ghosts of a gone by era.
When I was in high school, whenever a fellow had a date he’d go around the dorm room looking for a condom and when he couldn’t get one more often than not he went ‘live’ (unprotected). Teenagers are randy, that is the way they were created and while some will be able to fight off the hormones racing through their bodies others won’t. Some people think that providing condoms encourages promiscuity and maybe they are right. Promiscuity is a moral question, not a health issue. HIV/AIDS, other diseases and unplanned pregnancy is a health issue. I will end this column with this bit of ‘Hard Talk’; people are having sex more frequently and at a younger age but despite this Rwanda’s prevalence rate is only 3%. Know why? Because they use protection. Condoms to be precise.