There’s a saying that goes “health is wealth” and very few people can argue with that. Healthiness is the bedrock upon which everything sprouts. At times not sufficient emphasis is placed on the favourable health status of a nation and how it’s inextricably tied to whatever economic prosperity a nation may envisage. It’s never been truer in South Africa’s case as we seek to assert ourselves in the same way that our global south counterpart like India and Brazil are doing.
South Africa is said to be a relatively youthful country with the average age of 24.9 years old. So it would make sense why the ministry of health as led by the energetic Dr Aaron Motsoaledi would, through the Integrated School Health Programme, want to gauge the healthiness of school going children since it’s in them that the aspirations of the nation lie. The programmes, which includes oral; eye and overall body screening, has admirable intentions and is welcomed. However, it’s the talk of availing contraceptives like condoms to high school pupils that has kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest. Arguments against such a move by the ministry of health have said that the distribution of condoms to pupils is an implicit encouragement for the children to have sex. Those who hold an opposing view have lauded Motsoaledi because, they say, those kids are already sexually active and that the condoms will ensure that immature parenthood and the contracting of HIV is avoided. They further state that government’s impending plan is indicative of the fact that there’s been a glitch at the source- the home.
While it’s true that parents cannot live their children’s lives for them, there’s considerable influence they wield in how the children view the world and how they interface with that usually hostile world. The advent of the democratic project of 1994 has left many a parent with a sense of disempowerment since their ability to exercise parental authority has seemingly been curtailed by this democracy and its continued emphasis on rights in favour of a recalcitrant youth, who want what they want when they want it because YOLO(you only live once). The home, with all its varying definitions of the 21st century, remains the command centre where the greatest learning happens or doesn’t happen, for that matter. It’s monumental that parents device ways of including sexual education in their discussions with their children even if it may be uncomfortable. The idea that the kids will necessarily ‘know’ what to do and not to do unfortunately doesn’t hold water. If parents don’t take that initiative, then the hyper-sexualized content on MTV, Trace, Channel O and the greater Hollywood machinery will gladly occupy the space left vacant by naive parents, who think that because they grew up a certain way the same will automatically apply to their offspring. One is mindful of the class factor in all of this and how it ‘denies’ some parents the opportunity to be fully engaged in the lives of their children because they may be required to leave very early for work and return when the kids have gone to bed or that when the parents come back from work they are so drained that they eat and salvage the little sleep in preparation to slug it out the following day in an attempt to force the stubborn ends of economic survival to meet and keep the desperation of destitution at bay.
Minister Motsoaledi and his department, as well meaning as their actions are, must ask themselves for what purpose were schools created. Just because there are school-going children who prefer to drown themselves in alcohol, does that mean the minister will consider having a mini liquor outlet on school premises to tender to the insatiable thirst of the kids? I hope not. How thorough have the consultations been that led to the pilot projects of this drastic policy on condom? Surely so resourceful a department along with its education counterpart can scour the globe for better remedies. The unintended consequence of free availability of condoms is that it’s likely to arose (no pun) curiosity where there wasn’t any yet.
If parents are concerned about the impact this policy may have on their children then they ought to register their displeasure with their respective school governing bodies and demand that those grievances be addressed. If needs be, the courts must be approached and have them settle the matter. When the age of termination of pregnancy was lowered to 12 years old and without the requirement of parental consent by the president Mbeki administration, parents did little beyond condemning the law. If indeed parents are as outraged as they sound on talk radio shows, then the proof will be in their action. If the constitutional court can come to the aid of Schubart Park residents, who won a case against their eviction by the Tshwane Municipality, I’d like to think it can give an ear to the pleas of parents who feel that the ANC as the party in government is over stepping their electoral mandate.
The parents must stop being afraid of their children out of some misplaced sense of wanting to be popular or modern. This, however, doesn’t mean the parent ought to be Draconian in raising the child. The teenage years are the most explosive of a person’s life and the teenage child must know that they can easily access the parent without fearing that they might be dismissed as “attention seeking”. Parental affirmations are also usually sought more during that phase of life and sometimes it’s when there’s a deficit of adult reassurance that kids search for it from older men; gangs; ‘toxic’ popular cultural content or equally hormonal and insecure peers. A sense of belonging is the ultimate prize because no teenager wants to be an outcast. The unfortunate outcomes are the 94000 pregnancies by high school girls last year. Of graver concern is the fact that more often than not, the girl child, unlike her male counterpart, bears the brunt disproportionately by natural, and seemingly social, design. Clearly there’s an Everest of problem facing us but does the distribution of condoms at the request of pupils mean we’ll solve the problem? A refusal to accede to a 13-year old’s demand for a condom is to contravene the child act and yet sexual intercourse with a child younger than 16 years is statutory rape. So what are we to do? With that kind of legal ambiguity, it’s clear that the solutions to this social crisis can’t be left to the hands of politicians alone, however noble their aims may be.