For the last couple of months, we have seen billboards with words like “Hakanira ba shuga mami/dadi”, orange arm bands with “Sinigurisha” (I do not sell myself) - messages that are intended to raise awareness about the dangers of cross-generational sex.
While the “Sinigurisha” campaign seeks to reduce HIV prevalence among young people, the campaign messages do not fully address the potentially negative outcomes from sexual behaviour, like unwanted or unplanned pregnancies and infection with sexually transmitted diseases.
We have all noticed that a blurring of morality with public health issues occurs, not just when discussing this particular type of adolescent sexual activity, but whenever there is any public discussion of adolescents having sex!
For instance, the strong societal norm of virginity before marriage paradoxically puts young women at risk by restricting their access to information on reproductive health services as they fear that they will be thought to be sexually active.
Deborah Haffner, ex-President of Sexuality Information Education Council of United States, said: “What does it say about us as a country if we believe that sex is so dirty, that we must save it for the one we love?”
Let us be clear—warning adolescents on the risks of early and unsafe sexual activities, promoting abstinence and delayed sexual activity, is the right thing to do – BUT such programs must be accompanied by full information about sex and how adolescents can protect themselves once they are sexually active.
Scientific research has shown that information on sex or access to sexual health services does not cause promiscuity. As one person so eloquently put it: “If we believe condoms cause promiscuity, we must believe that umbrellas cause rain”!
But in order for sex education to be real and meaningful to adolescents, it must go beyond the pure public health goals of disease prevention to the promotion of positive sex practices rooted in values that are fundamental to both AIDS prevention and to healthy personal development.
I refer here to the values of consensual, respectful, responsible, and mutually satisfying sex.
Sex education that is restricted to mere facts without allowing for interactive discussion about the values that are critical for healthy intimacy does adolescents a grave disservice.
Grounding information about sex in human values is particularly important if we are to successfully address the dangers of high risk behaviour including cross generational sex.
It is also important to remember that there is a clear distinction between morality that have serious consequences if not adhered to and messages that underscore the need for caring and responsibility in sexual interactions.
While the former instills fear and undermines self-confidence, the latter provides the basis for healthy development.
But for us to do any of this we must, as a first step, do all we can to end the silence and shame that surrounds sex. The challenge is to break the silence between us and our adolescents.
More importantly, sex education should be more positive with less emphasis on anatomy and scare tactics; it should focus on negotiation skills in sexual relationships and communication.
Details of sexual health clinics should be advertised in areas that adolescents frequent (for example, school toilets, shopping centers).