As part of its measures to reduce the spread of various sexually transmitted diseases among SA women and young girls, the new basic education department policy (SA BED Policy) gives learners from 12 years the right to receive contraceptives.
In the new policy released on Wednesday, parents and school Principals will no longer restrict learners from receiving condoms.
The announcement of the new policy follows the latest report about the spread of HIV among SA young girls and women.
The report by the Human Sciences Research Council states that nearly a 100,000 South African Women and young girls are HIV positive every year with over 2000 getting infected each week.
At its worst, the data says of all new HIV infections are among young women between the ages of 15 and 24, and this was blamed on the absence of condoms in lower schools.
Before the announcement of the new SA BED policy, school principals, governing bodies and parents were allowed to decipher their strategic method to curb the spread of HIV.
Community leaders were also allowed to have the final say about whether condoms were to be made available on school grounds and – often times the hard answer is “no”.
But with the arrival of the newSA BED policy, parents and staff would no longer keep condoms out of schools and that roving health department teams or other qualified health workers will provide sexual and reproductive health services to pupils.
12-year-old pupils and older will have free access to contraception as well as other youth-friendly health services such as screening for sexually transmitted infection – preferably in their home languages.
This is the education department’s first HIV policy in almost 20 years and replaces a 1999 policy that had since not been effective. It will be an addition to SA’s Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act which imposes no age restrictions for people seeking abortions.
Speaking on the new policy, the international humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said the new SA BED policy is laudable but that real test will be in changing mindsets and funding implementation.
“Everyone who works in this space knows that schools are a key place to access the people who are really key … if you want to make an impact on controlling the HIV epidemic,” says the MSF medical co-ordinator for South Africa, Amir Shroufi.
“A lot of barriers [to reproductive services for adolescents] come at the level of the school so it’s important to somehow get parents, principals and governing bodies on board and dispel some of their misconceptions.
“A common misperception among parents is providing adolescents with condoms will make them have sex earlier. There has never been any evidence that that’s been the case.”
Shroufi said his organisation spent weeks speaking to parents, principals and boards to overcome reservations about providing services on school grounds.
“You have to bring parents and school governing bodies on board. Everybody essentially has the best interests of the kids at heart – you just need a respectful dialogue about why this is in their best interest,” Shroufi says.
MSF, however, related its concerns about how the new plan will be funded. Shroufi explained that in KwaZulu-Natal for instance, school services relied heavily on trained community members who counselled pupils.
“This policy is saying that we’re going to identify, for instance, kids who have been sexually harassed – and if they’ve been raped they will need access to comprehensive medical services and forensic examinations if they want,” says Shroufi.
“Counselling is massively important in that but there are gaps around this, so where is this going to come from?” he asked.
The new SA BED policy now allows pupils from age 12 to access the free condoms while parents and Principals are not allowed to restrict them