Jamaica is a strange place. We are simultaneously hypersexualized and sexually repressed. We have a very sexual culture but we’re at the same time afraid to talk about sex. As I said, strange place.
I recently wrote about some of the issues plaguing our young people in my post “Child Month: Rhetoric or Real Commitment?” and I would like to continue that conversation with a focus on sex and how we are shirking our responsibilities to our children and youth.
Our teenagers are having sex. Ideally we wish they weren’t but they are. I imagine it is easier for us to bury our heads in the proverbial sand and pretend young people are saintly pilgrims of God who are waiting for marriage. Nonetheless, we absolutely must avoid the easy path in the best interest of our youth. The responsible thing to do is tackle the problems head on, regardless of how uncomfortable they make us.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the facts objectively and have a frank discussion about where we are falling short and what we must do in order to fix the situation at hand.
The 2008 Reproductive Health Survey published by the National Family Planning Board (NFPB) found that the mean age of sexual initiation for the 15 – 19 age group was 13.9 for boys and 15.3 for girls. The 2005 Jamaica Youth Risk and Resilience Behaviour survey also found that 12.8% of adolescents 10 – 15 reported that they had sexual intercourse. This is cause for concern for a number of reasons. Are these young people equipped with the information and tools to protect themselves if they are indeed engaging in sexual activities?
There is a raging debate going on about whether or not condoms should be made available in schools. While I empathize with the people who are against it, as I too believe young people should wait until they are physically, emotionally and financially able to take on the responsibilities that come with being sexually active, it would be remiss of me to not consider the fact that taking such a position is likely to do more harm than good. No amount of preaching and moral crusading will change the fact that many young people are having sex and need to protect themselves.
Along with not providing condoms, we have also been neglecting to teach children about the effects and consequences of sexual activity as well as other pertinent information to their successful development into conscientious and productive adults. The ongoing melee surrounding the HFLE curriculum proves how uncommitted we truly are to aiding and facilitating the development of our young people. Our discomfort with sex and sexuality cannot be reason enough to avoid teaching them important and valuable life skills (including information about drug use, sexual health, high-risk sexual behaviour and conflict resolution).
Children and young people have a right to effective sexual and reproductive health services. This includes making relevant resources and information available and accessible to them. Are we giving young people the information needed, such as those around sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV and AIDS, to make informed decisions about their sexual health? We are simply not doing enough.
We must begin to question the strategies we have been using to address sexual attitudes and behaviours where our young people are concerned, as they are clearly not working. Let us take the proposition to raise the age of consent from sixteen years old to eighteen, for example. While that sounds like a good idea in theory, it does not hold water when scrutinised more rigorously. What exactly are we trying to achieve and what are the consequences of doing this? For one, we will be effectively barring many young people who are already having sex and many who will become sexually active from the necessary sexual and reproductive health services they need. And then of course we will feign surprise when they become pregnant and/or contract sexually transmitted diseases. It is an incredibly frustrating and unproductive cycle.
The hour has long gone for us to move past the stage of wishing chastity on our youth to actually making policies and acting in a way that reflects the reality of their situation. It is the responsibility of duty bearers, including policymakers, teachers, health practitioners, religious leaders and all of us who claim to have their best interest at heart.