By Dr Oswald Thomas
If as a teacher I give out condoms in schools, will I be encouraging promiscuity? Taking the power of transmitting values to children away from their parents? Costing the education system more money? Sending mixed messages? Supporting safe sex? Stemming the tide of HIV/AIDS? Combating teenage pregnancies or safeguarding morality over saving lives? These issues were brought to the fore when the Antigua Daily Observer on Tuesday, March 1, 2011, published an article under the caption “Minister of Education Says No to Condoms in School.”
The Hon. Minister of Education and Gender Affairs, Dr Jacqui Quinn-Leandro was at the time responding to a suggestion put forward by the coordinator of the St Lucia-based Educational International Organization, Virginia Albert-Poyette, at a regional teacher trade unions workshop. One of the aims of the workshop was to conduct an evaluation of a five-year project on HIV and AIDS and Education for All. Ms Albert-Poyette felt that as part of the battle against HIV/AIDS, condoms should be given out to school children.
I am in full support of the Minister on her unshakeable stance that condoms should not, and will not be distributed in schools across Antigua and Barbuda. If the suggestion is simply to give school children full access to condoms in isolation of a holistic sex education program, then this exercise is worthless. In fact, condom distribution will have no impact in the fight against HIV and AIDS. According to Kirby (2000), there are three main controversial approaches to reducing rates of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy among North American teenagers, namely: abstinence-only programs, safer sex education, and making condoms available in schools.
Even if one argues for the idealism of school being solely about education, this is simply not the reality. Antigua and Barbuda and the rest of the Caribbean for that matter are part of a changing landscape. Things that are happening in the Caribbean today sexually are not things that I never felt I would have lived to see. Sex is all around us, television adds, movies, strip clubs, gay and lesbian clubs, openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender couples. Just take a look at the number of young ladies who are having babies very early. As of December 2010, the AIDS Secretariat in Antigua reported an increase in HIV/AIDS of 65 cases with 90% of the infected falling between 15-49 age group and of that number the majority are women between 15-34 age group. The Caribbean now has the highest number of persons living with HIV/AIDS in the world. We cannot ignore this problem or allow it to flourish by being rigidly moralistic.
I know that sex is more often on the minds of school children more than education is. While I know the need for sexual experimentation is not confined to school children, rightly so, sex should be on school children minds. It is an integral part of their bodily functions and emotional cravings. Part of growing up is learning how to manage one’s sexual energies and to direct those powerful emotions to healthy outlets -- swimming, exercise, community service, organized religious activity, sports etc.
Distributing condoms must be filtered through a set of discerning criteria that exclude primary schoolers and acts as protective measure against indulgent adolescents. This process may also be tied to parental alert so that parents can either seek professional help, pastoral counseling or psycho-therapeutic intervention as they seek to influence their children with desired moral values. This is very important especially in those sensitive years when school children’s hormones act like a runaway train, and preaching abstinence is neither safe nor good enough.
The American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs states that abstinence-only programs may delay sex however, a large number of youths are already sexually experienced and need the knowledge, motivation, skills and access to condoms and contraceptives to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies.
What this implied is to say No to condoms without offering a credible alternative intervention program is in essence to say yes to behaviors that are likely to destroy school children’s chances at living a successful life. It is unjust that the school system should not find more practically ethical intervention to encourage their journey towards personal development and responsible citizenship.
“The only natural resources that Antigua and Barbuda has are its people,” These words were wisely spoken by the late Father of the Nation, Sir Vere Cornwall Bird. If education keeps us learning, sorrows keeps us humble, success keeps us flowing, then our children should keep us human.
Perhaps what is needed in Antigua and Barbuda and the Caribbean school system is to educate our adolescents about sex and sexuality as part of our regular school curricula. A lesson plan that goes far beyond human biology of naming the parts of the body and the sexual reproductive system. Sex and sexuality must be openly addressed in our schools from intercourse, childbearing and childrearing to sexually transmitted diseases. A salient point we seem not to remember is that education is much broader than mastering subject content -- English, math, history, geography, biology, home economics, woodworking, chemistry and the whole regiment of CXC requirement. Schooling is to be about equipping students with life skills intelligent, so that they can develop sound judgments, practice ethical behavior, attain self-fulfillment, act as responsible citizens and maximize spiritual aspirations. Hence, subject matter must bridge the gap between theory and practice or else our schools will be graduating adults who are children.
Add to that moral education, self-discipline and practical strategies of avoiding situation where saying No to sex becomes almost impossible. As a person who works in the helping profession, I have met countless teenagers, who honestly don’t have a clue about the addictive nature of sex, about their own sexuality, about the destructive nature of sex to life and dreams or about the proper context of sex, which is a stable, loving committed intimate relationship -- better known as a healthy and mutually fulfilling marriage.
More tragic is the observation that if and when school children become victims of early pregnancies (usually occurring because of poverty, delinquent influences and exploitation of promiscuous adults), most island school systems do not make alternative provisions for them to complete their schooling. I see this travesty as one of the gravest vices committed under the cover of virtue. Saying No, would not change injustice.
The ministry of education should also look to partner with its counterpart, the ministry of health to develop and implement a school-based health center whereby condoms can be dispensed by the school nurse. The student would have to request a condom from the school nurse and that student would have to listen to a brief lecture on safe sex. Condoms in school are nothing new as many schools districts around the world have already grappled with this controversial policy since the 1990s. When our school children have become fully armed with sex and sexuality education they will be in a better position to make sound decisions that will increase their chances at success in life.
Bear in mind some very stark statistics that underscore this problem. For each of the 65 new cases of HIV/AIDS in Antigua and Barbuda, to get a better picture of how many persons who could be actually walking around with HIV/AIDS knowingly or unknowingly, we would have to multiply each person infected as having five sexual partners. Hence, the number of persons infected would jump from 65 to 325 in 2010.
Given this situation, the minister of education is correct -- we cannot just give away condoms in school without first educating the nation’s only natural resources. We have to do everything within our power to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Parents, pastors, community leaders, politicians, journalists, and educators should join our children in preparing to be part of the solution.
I am not suggesting that only saying Yes to condoms in school is the panacea. I know that if we simply say No to condoms we would be multiplying the problem, not solving it. I believe that distributing condoms in school is an act of saving grace rather than promoting promiscuity. I encourage our education administrators throughout the Caribbean to take Albert Einstein’s counsel seriously: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."
March 15, 2011