Shoolchildren as young as 10 could be offered condoms as part of a government move to teach sex education in schools.
Radical plans to make condoms available to kids – and their teachers – are among proposals floated by the government this week. They have drawn outrage from some children’s support groups, who criticised it as a hamfisted attempt to come to terms with the scourge of teenage pregnancies and teachers preying on pupils, especially in poorer schools.
The proposals, gazetted this week, involve offering male and female pupils condoms from grades 7-12. Younger children in grades 4-6, who would be aged nine to 12, would be given condoms “where required”.
There would also be mandatory sex education for primary and high school pupils.
Mobile clinics will visit schools so that teachers and pupils can be tested voluntarily for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and TB.
The move is likely to unleash a heated debate among churches, parents, schools and children’s rights activists, who have 21 days to respond.
Lolita Winnaar, a Centurion mother of an 11-year old son, said: “Do I see why government wants to roll this out? Yes. Do I agree with it? No. At no point should it become the school’s responsibility to provide my child with condoms. It is our duty as parents … to teach our children to know right from wrong.”
Basic Education Department spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said the Aids pandemic called for drastic measures.
“This is a matter of life and death, so we are not going to dilly-dally and waste time.”
Among the proposals is zero tolerance for any form of sexual abuse.
Dr André Bartlett, of the South African Council of Churches, said he was not in favour of condom distribution at schools. He said this sent out the message that it was OK to be sexually active at a young age. “Government should rather address the issue of educating children about the issue of sexuality.”
One of the participants had a condom in his pocket, but he said he did not use it because he wanted to feel how it feels to have sex without a condom.
Speaking from the US, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba said condoms alone would not solve the problem.
“If there’s a comprehensive package of measures to save lives, then it would make sense, but just distributing condoms will solve nothing,” he said.
Tim Gordon, national chief executive of the Governing Body Foundation, which represents more than 700 schools, said it was “a sad reflection on society and on the teaching profession if things have reached a stage where they have got to start putting measures like this in place”.
“Given dire circumstances, with great sadness I would say we would go along with all measures to try and stop the spread of the pandemic,” he said, adding schools should have a choice on how, or whether, to implement the programme.
Gordon said it was sad that children as young as 10 could be offered condoms, but he knew there were children as young as seven who had been impregnated.
Mhlanga said grade six children were on their “radar” for the offering of condoms because figures had shown younger girls were falling pregnant. Earlier this year, parliament was told 717 primary school pupils and 20116 high school pupils had fallen pregnant last year.
Mhlanga said condoms would be offered to younger pupils if the children were mature for their age. They would not just be dished out to everyone, he said. “It will be done in a dignified and private manner.”
However, Stanley Makhitha, a child-rights activist, said one of the consequences of offering condoms to pupils was that children who were not sexually active “might be tempted to do so”.
Makhitha, who conducted a study on sexual activity at schools for his master’s degree, said some children engaged in sex without condoms.
“One of the participants had a condom in his pocket, but he said he did not use it because he wanted to feel how it feels to have sex without a condom.”
Cape Town mother Zaida Cader, from Diep River, said she would be happy for her 10-year-old daughter to be exposed to the availability of condoms when she was in Grade 7, but children needed to be educated before this happened. “I don’t think the lower grades should be exposed to them at all.”
Natalie Cook, from Parkview in Johannesburg, and a mother of two girls aged nine and seven, said: “My sister is an educator in England. They’re doing it there because the prevalence of STDs is high. They start with children from age 12. It’s a good idea to start doing it here, but it needs to be age-appropriate.”
Pozisa Apleni, a mother of a six-year-old from Gugulethu in Cape Town, said condoms should be permissible at high school, but not primary school: “At high school it is OK. At primary school they become curious and would want to use it.”
Renier Koegelenberg, secretary of the National Religious Association for Social Development, said research had shown that providing condoms alone would not save lives.
“All research tells us that even if people have access to condoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will use them.