Problematizing sex education in South Africa


I remember my 16 year old self sitting in Life Orientation class when my teacher said “why would he buy the cow when he’s getting the milk free of charge”. This is the standard of sex education that many young women in South Africa have come to know, an appraisal of abstinence and celibacy with very little attention given to anything else. The nature of sex education in South Africa has always been very conservative with strong ties to religious orthodoxy. Not only do teachers avoid issues relating to body changes, safe sex and termination of pregnancies, they also avoid veering from heteronormative conventions. 

Little research, time and effort is put into trying to understand learners’ sexuality and the challenges they might face. Biology teachers would teach the reproductive system in a detached way, as if we weren’t talking about our own body parts and life orientation teachers, while mandated to give a “holistic approach to the personal, social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, motor and physical growth and development of learners” held on to their conservative views that often left learners uninformed and vulnerable to abuse or disease.

Many young people are unaware of how their bodies work during puberty and after puberty heading into adulthood. Knowing their own body and knowing what is healthy and harmful gives students a sense of independence. Meaning that when body changes happen, they would be more aware if this is a healthy or a harmful response. This could be vital in preventing the growth of disease and infections. For example women who are encouraged to do self-examinations on their breasts, are able to detect anything out the ordinary.

Teenagers and young adults who have no reliable source of reference for what sex is tend to rely on distorted sources of information such as the media, unrealistic movie ‘rules’ and even pornography, the latest of which is considered extreme and convey toxic messaging. Sources like these are focused on harmful sexual ideals that prioritize the dominance of men and the submission of women for their pleasure. With imagery of male aggression, women are seen to be devoid of autonomy. This could lead to women having uncomfortable and unpleasurable sexual encounters, where their own needs are placed secondary to their male partners.

Ignorance around how pregnancy and reproduction works contributes to South Africa’s alarming rate of teenage pregnancies. Partners in Sexual Health reports that 30% of South African teenagers (between 15-19 year olds) have attested to ever being pregnant. A majority of these pregnancies are among 18 and 19 year olds. Pregnancy affect learners differently depending on their age. The older the student, the less likely the student will return to complete formal schooling.  Some of the consequences affect women and young girls disproportionately. Young girls who leave school, even for a short period, are at risk of poor school performance, failing a year or even dropping out of school completely. These statistics are made worse by the inaccessibility to protection against unsafe sex practices. This protection could prevent pregnancy and disease such as contraceptive pills, IUDs and condoms. Pregnant teenage women who are uninformed and pregnant are unware of the options that are available to them such as adoption and the right to termination of pregnancy.

Young men and women are especially vulnerable to rape and other sexual violences when they feel ignorant about their own bodies and are oblivious to their rights. Having open and honest discussions about your body, sex and consent can give young adults the power to call out violations and report them. 

It is a common assumption that to speak about processes relating to sex education encourages young people to be sexually active. The reality is, that teenagers will be exposed to sex practices, whether it be from media or peers. Comprehensive sex education makes sure that young people are informed to make safe decisions and are capable of knowing when their rights or human dignity has been infringed. A greater understanding of issues related to sex education not only make the classroom more relevant and engaging but it also works at shifting community attitudes. This creates an environment where fellow community members are brave enough to set aside their own beliefs in order to give an informed and supportive understanding to young persons.

Khadija Bawa is an Intern in the Sustained Dialogues programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She completed her undergraduate degree in BA Law at the University of Stellenbosch and completed her Philosophy Honours with a special focus on feminist theory and the law.