The Nordic Africa Institute

Research at a glance

Sex education hampered by taboos

Man (teacher) in front of class of students in a classroom
Date • 9 Mar 2017

Although South Africa has the world’s highest rate of people living with HIV, general knowledge about it is low and young people do not know how to protect themselves. Religious and cultural taboos hamper prevention work according to NAI guest researcher Mathabo Khau.

Her research shows that university students know much less about HIV than one would expect. A major factor is the lack of sex education in schools, even though it is a mandatory part of the curriculum. According to Khau, too often that part of the curriculum is, at best, hastily passed over or overlooked, or teachers simply tell the pupils to read about it by themselves.

“That kind of attitude leaves the youngsters without courage to ask about what they need to know. Instead, they seek answers from porn sites on the net or from older, equally misinformed friends”, Khau remarks.

Mathabo Khau

In South Africa, as well as most of the African countries where the exchange students she is studying come from, talking about sexuality is taboo. Moreover, religious organisations have great power in these societies and seldom promote contraceptive use. Consequently, many of Khau’s students are reluctant to use condoms.

“They are very well aware of the danger of inserting a memory stick into a laptop without first checking for viruses. However, that approach doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to their bodies, which surely must be more important than a laptop”, Khau observes.

Open communication about sex is necessary in order to combat HIV in South Africa, according to Khau. Teachers also need to be supported in their role as communicators and the curriculum needs to be adjusted to respond to young people’s needs.

“One thing we know for sure: young people will explore their sexuality whether we talk about sex or not. Therefore, it is our duty as adults to provide them with the best possible information. Otherwise we are sentencing our kids to an unnecessary death”, Khau concludes.

TEXT: Johan Sävström