The commonly accepted adage “it takes a village to raise a child” was put to the test – and failed in many instances – yesterday. The discussion was over the merits of making condoms available in schools, and the majority of respondents, including the minister in charge, said a resounding no.
The debate began with a news story in which Minister of Education Dr Jacqui Quinn-Leandro said, “The distribution of condoms will certainly not be a part of any policy in Antigua & Barbuda.”
Many of the callers to the programmes on OBSERVER Radio agreed with her. A common sentiment was that sex is for adults, and so schools should not condone sexual activity. Some said that condoms are available elsewhere and schools need not get in on the distribution. Parents also expressed opposition to anyone, including school personnel, providing prophylactics to their children.
We note that the genesis of the story was a call from a coalition of 12 teachers’ trade unions for condoms distribution in schools as a way to stem the transmission of HIV/AIDS among the student population.
One thing was clear yesterday from listening to the callers: sex should be an activity between two consenting adults, people, not just at the age of consent, but in possession of the ability and maturity to negotiate and handle all that the act does and could entail.
In our imperfect world, by that definition, few people, in spite of their age, would be sanctioned to copulate. And, legally speaking, given the age of consent, sex is not the preserve of adulthood. At last check, there were many students, including those at Antigua State College and Antigua and Barbuda International Institute of Technology, who the law says can have sex. Those are the kinds of contradictions that haunt us in this debate.
Another thing that was clear yesterday is that when many people hear about “condoms in school” they think of a free-for-all.
But we don’t think for a moment that the availability of condoms in school – and perhaps much turned on the choice of words (availability vs distribution) – means someone standing at the front gate passing out rubbers.
What we think of is a structure, perhaps within the realms of Health and Family Life Education, starting at the secondary school level. This would mean trained personnel and counselling about sex or protection for those students that need such services.
We don’t see the availability of condoms in schools as a retreat from our values or morals. We see it as part of a much-needed proactive approach to tackling the spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections, including HIV/AIDS. We could also control unwanted pregnancies.
As was said on Voice of the People yesterday, school is not simply a place to prepare children to make a living; it is a place to teach about life, and sex and personal and intimate relationships are a critical (inescapable) part of life.
We feel that some of the parents who were reacting yesterday were responding, not to the big picture, but to images of their children being handed the tools to have sex.
Several were adamant that they don’t want teachers or guidance counsellors talking to their children about sex. The thing is, too few parents are talking to their children about sex beyond saying don’t.
But the discussions are ongoing, in the media, among their peers, and with some warped adults, who come, not just with ulterior motives, but with their STIs and, possibly, viral loads.
The availability of condoms in school won’t automatically or necessarily translate into seriously reduced statistics on HIV/AIDS, STIs or unwanted pregnancies. But wouldn’t the one, two or few lives that could be spared worth it?
Education International’s Virginia Albert-Poyette, who made the call for condoms, said, “We are promoting abstinence for children as best as we can, but given our situation with our young people, it is one thing to preach and another thing to practice, and therefore we have to give them the alternative, which is the use of condoms.”
This is a sensitive issue that requires more than a knee-jerk reaction or strict adherence to beliefs rooted in our so-called Christianity and the status quo.
Maybe we need to calm down then have the discussion about how we treat with our young people who we know are having sex and doing so without the benefit of education or protection.
Perhaps we will also want to add to the debate new ways to approach abstinence. Rather than putting our hands over our ears, closing our eyes and shaking our heads from left to right, perhaps we will listen and analyse.
And rather than don’t, don’t, don’t, maybe we can start to list the facts about sex and the attendant woes and ask our teens if they are ready.
We might be pleasantly surprise to find that the majority, armed with education and not fear of mom and dad, are not.
We don’t have the answers, just our opinion and many suggestions. The one thing we know for certain is that this has to be a dialogue.
Check the global, regional and local HIV/AIDS statistics. We can’t afford what is shaping up to be a monologue.