Contributed by an HIV and health educator.
The public uproar over the health and family life education (HFLE) curriculum has done a grave disservice to a programme that addresses many of the social ills plaguing Jamaican youth. As an HIV and health educator, this is quite disconcerting to me.
The HFLE curriculum is not a textbook to be used by students, but a curriculum guide for use by teachers. The activities and resources which have been the media's focus are not mandatory. Teachers have the power to choose which parts to use as they make their lesson plans.
Denigrating the curriculum as a 'gay book' or 'sex text' misses the fact that it is a holistic life skills programme, covering self and interpersonal relationships; sexuality and sexual health; appropriate eating and fitness, and managing the environment.
Within each theme, the life skills are broken down into major subcategories of social, cognitive and coping life skills, including decision making; problem solving; effective communication; empathy; coping with stress; coping with emotions; healthy self-management and conflict resolution.
Teaching life skills in this way has been shown to delay the onset of drug use; prevent high-risk sexual behaviour; facilitate anger management and conflict resolution; improve academic performance and promote positive social adjustment. In fact, the curriculum already includes behaviour-modification strategies to deal with anger management, which the minister of education now proposes to introduce in schools.
The specific sections which have been highlighted by the media have also been taken out of context. The personal risk assessment that asks questions about sexual behaviour is for private use by students to help them calculate their personal risk. The information is not returned to the teacher. The purpose of the exercise is to build the students' critical thinking, decision making and healthy self-management and refusal skills.
The guided imagery activity which asks students to imagine they are the only heterosexuals in a world of homosexuals is not intended to 'make students homosexual' but to build empathy and self-awareness skills. It is meant to address intolerance and its consequences, including bullying and abuse of students because of sexual orientation.
The public's discomfort with some of these matters is understandable. However, we cannot ignore the reality our children face and refuse to give them tools to handle their sexuality and sexual health.
The reality is that young people are sexually active, but they do not understand their HIV risk. The mean age of sexual initiation in Jamaica is 14 years old (12 for boys, 15 for girls).
The Knowledge Attitudes Perception Behaviour (KAPB) study of 2008 indicated there was a 100 per cent increase in the rate of sexually transmitted infections among adolescent girls from 2004.
The same KAPB study indicated that males in the 15-24 age group reported having an average of six sexual partners, and females of the same age group, three sexual partners. Additionally, behavioural studies indicate that one in every three gay men was HIV-positive, and a significant number of this cohort was between the ages of 15 and 24. However, only 38 per cent of young adults between 15 and 24 per cent can correctly identify the modes of preventing HIV transmission.
The curriculum addresses all of these issues head-on. In addition there are many other
The evaluation of the programme in 2010 found "much greater knowledge of HIV among sixth-grade students in schools that took part in the programme than among students whose schools did not participate". By ninth grade, "students in the programme were less likely to engage in risky behaviours and more likely to refuse sex". (http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Opportunity_in_Crisis-Report_EN_052711.pdf).
In 2008, the former minister of education, Andrew Holness, stated: "[The] ministry was committed to empowering young persons with the necessary information to enable them to make the right decisions about preserving their lives ... through the Ministry of Education's Health and Family Life Education Programme." (http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/100-education/14236-education-hfle-programme-empowering-young-persons).
We hope that the ministry will continue to honour this commitment and that when the revised curriculum is introduced, the media will give as much support to educating the public on its contents as it has done to feeding the controversy.
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