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Saturday 24 March 2018

Don’t deny our children the right to sex education

The announcement, in Parliament on January 16, by Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh, that in the past four years seven primary school girls had to leave school because of their pregnancies should come as no surprise. In any society, anywhere in the world, young people are curious about sex. When that curiosity is not satisfied with correct and age-appropriate information, even children seek to find out more by whatever means they have at their disposal, including having sexual experiences.

Children and teens are not and cannot be expected to be asexual. Despite the squeamishness of adults regarding the topic of minors and sex, young people are exposed to sex all the time in their environments. Sex is everywhere: in the films and television we watch, the music we listen to, even the clothing we wear; children, as members of the society, are not inured to it by virtue of their age and innocence. How then do we protect them from underage sex and its life-changing repercussions?

It is the position of the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago (FPATT) that the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education in primary and secondary schools would contribute significantly to the protection of our children.

Comprehensive sexuality education is a process through which young people can acquire information and form attitudes and beliefs about sex, sexual identity, relationships and intimacy. It can also help them to develop their skills so that they can make informed choices about their behaviour and feel confident and competent about acting on the choices they make, while at the same time helping them to protect themselves against abuse, exploitation, unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS.

FPATT has been clamouring for such a curriculum for years but instead what often happens is that an incident involving inappropriate sexual behaviour occurs and schools react by calling us in to give a lecture. While it is good for schools to be responsive to immediate problems, it is better for us all to be proactive, to “take in front before in front takes us”, as it were.

This country can take in front with a collective effort, involving school administrators, teachers, parents, the National Parent-Teacher Association (NPTA) and youths themselves. Together we can review the present Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) curriculum to make it more meaningful, age-appropriate and relevant for young people who have many questions but precious few correct answers.

FPATT is willing to work with the Ministry of Education to review the curriculum, train teachers and monitor and evaluate the teaching of the curriculum in schools.

A good HFLE curriculum, in addition to delivering education on human sexuality, would also include information on communication, environment, nutrition, and relationships. Whether we admit it or not, without a sound HFLE curriculum in schools, our children and young adults get most of their information about sex from songs which don’t teach them how to respect their bodies but only the value of “daggering” and “the tightest hole” or “biggest wood”, to quote from a popular tune on air. These songs and much else in the popular media teach that sex is a commodity to be traded for love, money or prestige.

The minister’s revelation is the tip of the iceberg. Child sexual abuse is rampant and endemic in Trinidad and Tobago. UWI Psychiatry lecturer Dr Sandra Reid, one of the co-authors of a study on the topic last year, was quoted in the March, 2010, issue of UWI Today as saying, “It was startling to recognise how intricately woven child sexual abuse is into our culture.” The article added the study found that “children are perceived as having no rights, females are held responsible for sexual advances, and communities accept this.”

We continue to bury our heads in the sand because we do not want to believe that children are engaging in sexual activity but we have a moral responsibility to ensure our children have correct information to make informed decisions so that they can lead productive and fulfilling lives. If it is that children are being sexually abused, this is a serious matter that must be urgently addressed in order to protect our children. These children also need information so that they would know that what they are experiencing is abuse. They also need to know that this inappropriate behaviour must be reported and that their concerns would be dealt with appropriately without further harm to themselves.

In the wake of Gopeesingh’s statement it was heartening to hear the NPTA and Bishop Calvin Bess of the Anglican Church both reiterate the need for the implementation of a suitable national HFLE curriculum. FPATT already works with the Anglican Church in the Collaborative HIV/AIDS Management Programme (CHAMP), which sensitively and interactively teaches HFLE to teens and their parents in this Diocese. Implementing a national curriculum which is taught as a separate subject at both primary and secondary school levels-made examinable if this is what it would take to get teachers to teach it-is an urgent priority. FPATT stands ready to bring it to fruition.

Contact the FPATT at executivedirector@ttfpa.org


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