Despite high rates of teen pregnancy and HIV, South African high schools will remain largely condom-free zones while confusing government policies mix with morals to keep the prophylactics out of pupils' pockets.
For years, the battle in South Africa over whether or not condoms should be distributed in schools has set the morality of some against the prevention methods of others.
The issue is just as contentious in other countries, where many schools have chosen not to distribute condoms; consequently, there is no data on how many schools are distributing condoms internationally.
But with HIV-prevalence among young women aged 15 to 24 estimated at about 20 percent in South Africa, calls to introduce condoms in high schools are growing louder.
The Department of Education's politically pragmatic solution since 1999 has been to leave the decision – like many others related to sex education – up to individual schools.
Government policy on condoms states that whether or not condoms are offered in schools is a decision left to the school and its governing board – a body comprising teachers and parents. Ideally, the policy is meant to accommodate the values of schools and surrounding communities but, according to critics, it has done little more than create confusion.
"People aren't aware that schools have a choice as to whether they distribute condoms of not," said Michael Bennish, a faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and senior associate executive director of Mpilonhle, a South African non-profit organization providing innovative health and education programmes in rural schools and communities.
Sylvester Matlakala used to work at the AIDS coordinator's office of the Merafong City Local Municipality, which incorporates mining towns like Carletonville, west of Johannesburg. When asked if the municipality ever took condoms into schools, he responded: "We were told we should not do that, that the department of health did not allow condom distribution in schools."
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National department of education spokesman Granville Whittle was asked to confirm that condom distribution policies were the domain of school governing boards, but he replied: "No, Department of Education's position is that condoms should not be distributed in schools. The position is in fact "clear-cut", i.e., condoms should not be distributed in schools." He later partially retracted his statement after being directed to the policy document.
To some extent the confusion has been fostered by the stance of Minister of Education Naledi Pandor, who announced in 2006 that condoms should not be distributed in schools. This week, she stressed that her ministry would not be making condoms available to pupils.
Peter Fenton, chief education specialist and manager of life skills and HIV/AIDS programmes in Western Cape Province, said the minister's opinion might have been taken as gospel by many in the department. "I think, internally, there were a lot of directorates and chief directorates that took that as a directive that no condoms should be in schools."
Did you get the memo?
Tembisa High School, in a sprawling township between Johannesburg and Pretoria in Gauteng, South Africa's richest province, is where Molamu Letsoalo was a student and has now been the principal for almost 27 years.
A lot has changed since he went to school. Overcrowding has led to portable buildings and smaller classrooms set up in the school's main yard; teen pregnancy has become what Letsoalo described as a "national crisis".
Last year, 30 learners – mostly between the ages of 15 and 16 – fell pregnant. A few weeks ago he discovered a pupil who had bound her stomach tightly with adhesive tape to conceal her pregnancy; she miscarried and has refused to return to school.
Despite all this, Letsoalo said the school would not distribute condoms to learners. "Sometimes people come and distribute condoms, so that lets learners know everything about condoms - all this information is there in their books, it's everywhere ... as educators, we can't distribute condoms, it's quite difficult."
The sentiment is echoed by all the country's major teaching unions, who say they support condoms as part of an ABC - abstinence, be faithful, use condoms - model of prevention, but abstinence is still the first line of defence.
|We feel as if having condoms at school to distribute to learners openly, encourages them; it is as if you are saying to them, 'You can continue to have sex, it's not a problem|
Contrary to findings endorsed by the World Health Organisation, many teachers also worry that introducing condoms in schools will lead to earlier and increased sexual activity.
"We feel as if having condoms at school to distribute to learners openly, encourages them; it is as if you are saying to them, 'You can continue to have sex, it's not a problem'," said Ezra Ramasehla, president of the National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa.
"Our concern is in regards to the whole issue of morals and values, and therefore we cannot openly come to support that move [to distribute condoms] at the school level," he said. "We are not in any way against condom distribution per se, [but] while we feel there should be HIV and AIDS education at school, we think we should perhaps draw a line."
David Harrison, CEO of the LoveLife HIV prevention campaign, was also cautious about putting condoms in schools, although he admitted that about a third of young people aged 12 to 17 were having sex.
"There are real reasons to be careful in school settings [where pupils who are 13 years old use the same restroom as those who are 18]. Less than 5 percent of 13-year-olds have had sex; over two-thirds of 18-year-olds have had sex. In that setting, I think there may well be added [peer] pressure on people of younger ages if condoms are readily available."
"Handing out condoms like bubble gum"
Education specialist Fenton admitted there were limits. "I don't think we'll ever get to a point where we [educators] hand out condoms like bubble gum, but if people aren't getting access to condoms, then you have teenage pregnancy and that, for me, is poor education," he commented.
Bennish, who also runs the Mpilonhle programme in rural KwaZulu-Natal Province, said there were serious gaps in access to condoms, especially among rural youth, which could be remedied by making condoms available on school grounds.
"Shops are few and far between; clinics are few and far between ... and usually open when schools are open and closed when schools are closed. It's expensive and unlikely that kids would go to a clinic just to access condoms," said Bennish, whose organization sees up to 10,000 youths annually.
"If we're serious about controlling HIV and AIDS, and think condoms are the way to do it, then we need to make them accessible ... that is the reality."
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