The recent Court ruling that banned child marriages and raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 years has been applauded and welcomed by Zimbabweans in the country and abroad. For years many women and men have fought tirelessly to protect children (specifically girls) from child marriages, and the ruling was a breath of fresh air in the long struggle. The ruling coincides with increased discussion and talk on introducing contraceptives into high schools. This debate, unlike the court’s decision, has not gone as smoothly nor has it been well received by many. Nevertheless, it’s important to look at the state of gender and sex education in Zimbabwe, and whether it is doing any good.
Reviewing the Current System
There have been several papers written on gender and sex education. They all reach the same conclusion: Zimbabwe’s education system doesn’t do enough to cover this important conversation. In her 2012 dissertation, Miriam Banda examined the educational materials used in high schools, as well as the structure of gender and sex education curriculum. Her findings highlight the problem areas. Guidance and Counselling (G & C) lessons, or Life Orientation, or Life Skills, is where teachers are supposed to cover topics such as sexual health, contraception, and gendered roles. However, the reality is different. The content covered in these classes isn’t examinable, so it’s not given as much attention as other ‘more important’ subjects. Furthermore, according to Banda’s research, if teachers feel uncomfortable with the subject matter, they can simply skip a topic or cancel the lesson. The same mentality for History or Geography is unthinkable, so why is it so easy for them to opt out of G & C?
The inadequacies don’t stop there. When teachers do engage with students, the main message they preach is abstinence. Whilst teaching abstinence is not bad, it is bad when it’s the only message they convey to teenagers at the expense of other information. It’s impractical to believe that teenagers will abstain from sex just because they are told to – they are teenagers after all. The logic behind abstinence-only education is a fear that talking about sex will lead to teenagers wanting to have sex. There is a major flaw in this reasoning: teenagers are already having sex. Furthermore, as Crispen Bhukuvhani notes in his 2012 paper, the abstinence that teachers and parents advocate contradicts HIV/AIDS literature, which preaches safe sex. Getting conflicting messages about sexual health leads to even more confusion.
It’s not just about sex
There is another fundamental flaw in the argument against comprehensive sex and gender education is that it will only be about sex itself, which is incorrect. Sex and gender education is about teaching teenagers about contraceptives and reproductive health, but it’s so much more than that. It’s teaching them about consent. It’s teaching them their legal and reproductive rights. It’s teaching them about rape and sexual assault. It’s informing them about the avenues and options available to them if or when they are raped. It’s teaching victims not to blame themselves and teaching perpetrators not to rape. Ultimately it’s teaching teenagers that sex is not just a physical act: there are psychological, legal and societal aspects to it that are swept under the rug simply because people don’t want to compromise their comfort.
Former Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture David Coltart agrees that Zimbabwe’s education system can do better. Although he is unsure what the current curriculum covers, he believes it’s time for a review:
“The current curriculum needs a drastic overhaul generally.” Zimbabwe’s curriculum hasn’t transformed alongside the socio-cultural changes in the country. “Many children get involved in sexual relations because they have no hope that they can go on to get a qualification and a decent job. We have to give children more and better education on these issues, but we need to give children hope”, emphasizes Coltart.
Sian Maseko, a feminist and women’s rights activist, agrees that more needs to be done:
It takes teachers, parents and guardians, and religious leaders to give Zimbabwean teenagers a comprehensive sex and gender education. Of course it can be argued that our country has bigger things to worry about at this point, but it’s easy to forget that teenagers won’t stay teenagers forever. The older they get, the harder it is to correct the harmful thinking and mentalities that they could one day pass on to their children. We’ve shown that our country is capable of The question now is, are Zimbabweans ready to bite the bullet and have an honest talk about sex?
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