Kamina Johnson Smith, GUEST COLUMNIST
There are three things that are clear to me:
(i) It is entirely understandable that the questions included in the personal risk assessment and imagery tasks would cause discomfort and raise an outcry;
(ii) The Ministry of Education needs to review its text approval process;
(iii) The need for comprehensive, clear and well-delivered education on sexual and reproductive health issues in our schools is undeniable. Our children live in a hypersexualised environment in which music, cable and the Internet bombard them with images, concepts and feelings they need to know how to manage. Not only are many parents unaware of some of the issues out there, but many are ill-equipped to have the necessary conversations.
The Jamaica in which they grew up didn't have all these issues - no not-fit-for-airplay music available with ease, no free porn via the Internet and mobile phones, no cable TV, no open LGBT communities, no bling culture, and transactional sex was a concept reserved for prostitutes. This is not what this generation has to deal with.
If many of our family structures/parents themselves are ill-equipped to guide children, the State has a responsibility to ensure that it fills the gap. If it doesn't, not only do our young people suffer, but the entire society will continue to bear the social and economic cost of unintended pregnancies, high STI infection rates, high rates of drug use, adolescent suicide, suboptimal academic performance, cyclic abuse and other symptoms of maladjustment.
EFFECTIVE DELIVERY IMPORTANT
Key to the success of HFLE, however, is effective delivery. It keeps being stated that some teachers choose what they wish from the curriculum, and that some teach only the subject matter with which they are comfortable. While this might, at first blush, give some persons comfort, it gives me none. How then do you know if the children are getting the information they need?
One eighth-grader at a Kingston all-girls' school told me that her HFLE teacher came to the first class for the term, and then didn't show for the rest - they had a free period for the whole term. If this is true, it happens to the detriment of students.
When we talk about sexual and reproductive health education, we think about our young people who don't have a solid family structure with an adult from whom they can get guidance and advice. We have to think about the girls in communities where it is expected that they will drop out of school at 13 to have their first child. Don't we want them to be given the tools to break that family cycle?
We also have to think about adolescents uncertain about their sexuality, but without anyone to talk it through with.
The valiant and engaged guidance counsellors in our schools should be given medals of honour for personal toll they put themselves under to try to meet our children's need. Their hands are full, but often they reach only the students who understand that they need help and go to them. Those who don't understand, those who are buffeted by influence to influence, are likely only to be reached in the classroom.
The figures are there. Antisocial behaviour dots our headlines regularly. As a society, we can either confront the issues and try to address them through methods like a formal HFLE curriculum delivered by persons trained to so do, or we can continue to reap the consequences of inaction/denial.
Of course, we can do nothing different. It will only be a matter of time before we read the next outrageous headline about sex in schools, taxis or buses and the high rate of pregnancies and HIV infection among adolescents. Then we can (again) ask, "Why?" and "How come?" and say it's the parents or the teachers or society, depending on who you ask.
I only hope, like the author of that data-filled article, that when the revised text is issued, it is left with enough relevant and clear content to deal with the realities of our society. I also hope that any interim period will be used to assess any HFLE teacher-training/delivery gaps that exist in the schools so that the National Family Planning Board, or some other non-governmental organisation, support can be found to fill them - either with personnel for the relevant sessions, or additional training.
Exploring the matter of teaching group size, age of introduction of issues, and clear language that supports tolerance (rather than what is perceived as 'promotion') should also help produce an effective programme acceptable to most.
I have yet to hear of an example where closing your eyes to a problem solved it. I really hope we will move past the dramatic discourse and support our schools, valiant guidance counsellors and dedicated teachers in helping our nation's children to actively learn how to deal with, if not solve, just some of their challenges.
Senator Kamina Johnson Smith is an opposition senator. Email feedback to email@example.com.