Tell us more – Children call for sex education

Children in sub-Saharan Africa want to know more about sex and how to protect themselves from HIV, but taboos surrounding children's sexuality can mean life-saving information is kept from them, according to an international NGO.

Children in the region say they need access to sex education that is comprehensive, practical, and free from moral judgment, according to the report Tell Me More! by Save the Children Sweden (SC-S). The NGO researched children's views on sexuality, sex education, HIV prevention approaches and sexual identity in nine sub-Saharan African countries.

"Adults think we're too young to know anything about sexuality. They don't explain things clearly. They don't want to give the information to children," Carine Hlomador, a 15-year-old AIDS activist from Togo, told IRIN during the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

With nearly 1,800 new infections every day among children under 15 worldwide, some through sexual activity, sex education for children is vital to prevent the spread of HIV, Save the Children says in its report, released on 1 December.

Right to information

The 2001 UN Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS states that young people aged 15-24 should have access to information and services to protect themselves from HIV infection, and aimed to reach 90 percent of youths by 2005.

But three years past that target only 40 per cent of young men and 36 percent of young women worldwide are armed with accurate knowledge on HIV prevention, according to a 2008 UN report.

Under-15s are not targeted at all, despite more than 10 percent of interviewees between 15 and 19 claiming to have had sex under the age of 15, according to Amé David, SC-S programme manager in Dakar.

"Children under 15 have been largely ignored in HIV/AIDS prevention education programmes, because talking about children's sexuality is taboo," David said.

''...Teachers don't seem to want to open the debate to allow children to express themselves...''

Taboos around children's sexuality also mean that little is known about children aged 7 to 14, according to Save the Children. "There is clearly a need – if not a moral obligation – for studies [on these age groups]," the report concludes, adding that children are being exposed to HIV from a young age, becoming sexually active early and developing their own strategies to protect themselves.

Studies show that children with access to accurate information tend to delay having sex for the first time. "It is the children who don't have the information who try to discover what it is all about," SC-S's David said.

David is convinced that suppressing children's sexuality can only make things worse: "If we say nothing is happening at adolescence, we are deluding ourselves. If we look the other way and put our head in the sand, children will look for information in the media which is not always a good source."

Bayala Rodrigue, 16, of Côte d'Ivoire, told IRIN adults would be wrong to avoid the subject. "In Africa, adults say there is an age after which you can teach sexuality to children. But there is no age limit. You think you know your child, but in reality you don't. On the street you don't know what he or she is learning."

Why the taboo

The silence surrounding children's sexuality in some sub-Saharan countries comes partly from adults' unease with the subject, says Anta Fall Diagne, programme officer for reproductive health at the Population Council, an international NGO working on reproductive health in Senegal.

"It is adults, policymakers and ministers who are afraid of [talking about it]. The youth themselves are open about their problems."

Photo: Fid Thompson/IRIN
Young girls get a chance to discuss sex at an after-school health club in the Senegalese capital, Dakar

Religion also plays a significant role, she said. People are reluctant to talk to children about sexuality in societies where sex outside of marriage is frowned upon.

But Fall said: "One thing is sure – many of them [youths] have a sex life. Another thing is sure – they have problems with their sex lives. Thirdly, they do not have the right information to deal with these problems."

Better sex education in schools

Children surveyed by SC-S who do receive sex education in schools said that it is often negative, contradictory and too focused on biology. Instead children want knowledge that is relevant to their situation and the skills to negotiate prevention methods in a relationship.

"You've told me to protect myself," Rodrigue of Côte d'Ivoire said. "OK, I know that you put the condom on the penis. But there are other things to negotiate. We need more realistic information."

The report also found that teachers are often unprepared to openly discuss issues of sexuality with children and frequently take a moralistic and negative stance.

"Teachers don't seem to want to open the debate to allow children to express themselves, talk about what's happening to them and find solutions for their problems," Souadou Ndoye, a 17 year-old Senegalese student, told IRIN.

Read one girl's plea for early sex education