Statistics from the past year point to wide gaps in translation between what is being taught in schools about sex and what is really happening to many young girls in South Africa.

More than two decades ago, the education department introduced comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in schools.

Resistance from not only parents, religious groups and traditional leaders but also from teachers has meant, however, that CSE has not fully taken off as intended. This has had devastating effects for learners, particularly young girls.

According to the department, the intention of CSE is to teach learners about how to navigate their bodies and practise safe sex, while also informing them about HIV/Aids and STIs. This is done with the hope of reducing unsafe sexual practices among learners, at the same time also improving the retention of girls in schools.

Recent reports have revealed shocking teenage pregnancy statistics, for one. And although some of these numbers can be attributed to statutory rape, especially those of 10-year-olds falling pregnant, those of young girls – who are still in school and are of the legal age to have sex – might suggest they are not well informed about making the right sexual choices, and that the issue of consent is not prioritised and taught in schools.

“The burden is put onto young girls to protect themselves. How are we talking to young boys and men?”

Chief director of women, maternal and reproductive health at the health department, Dr Manala Makua, disclosed that 138 320 deliveries were reported from youngsters between the ages of 10 and 19 years during 2020 and 2021. Of these, approximately 4 000 babies were delivered by girls between 10 and 14 years and 130 000 were recorded from girls between 15 and 19 years.

Over the past four years the numbers have seen a steady increase, with about 7 000 new teenage pregnancies recorded each year since 2017.

In a presentation to the portfolio committee in 2021, the deputy director-general of care and support in schools, Dr Granville Whittle, also revealed that girls are four times more likely to be affected by HIV in comparison to boys, with 1 300 new infections recorded in girls and young women every week in South Africa. Whittle further pointed out that about 15% of girls who are raped, sexually or verbally abused, experience this within the schooling environment.

Spokesperson for the department Elijah Mhlanga says, “There are no open conversations about what is taking place in society”, and social ills need to be addressed through education.

According to Mhlanga, CSE was introduced into the schooling curriculum to address various issues including gender-based violence, unplanned pregnancy and the exploitation of young people.

A girl stands outside of her home in Soweto as she reads through her grade 11 life orientation textbook. Photo: Nondumiso Lehutso

“It is all about empowering learners to protect themselves against sexual assault and related offences.”

Noting the statistics that show no signs of the impact of CSE on learners, Mhlanga says the department observed that there had been a weakness in the teaching of CSE, which became evident in the lack of change in behaviour among learners.

According to the department, this was due to the varied implementation of CSE across the country. Mhlanga says this is due to widespread prejudices from educators who would resolve to skip parts of the CSE curriculum that contradicted their religious beliefs and cultural practices.

Mhlanga recalls that the department relied on the curriculum and did not anticipate that teachers would use their own discretion in relaying the content to learners.

“So, learners were missing out on important information, which would otherwise assist them to protect themselves against sexual abuse,” he says.

However, in a realistic and practical sense, “How are you asking a 10-year-old girl to protect herself from a 30-year-old man who wants to abuse her?” asks Dumisile Nala, the national executive officer at Childline.

Nala added that not going to school in 2020 was severe for children as they were confined to homes, often the location in which abuse takes place, and children could not reach out.

Nala says calls increased significantly during the lockdown period and many of the cases were pertaining to conflict within family homes and the abuse of young girls.

According to Nala, Thuthuzela Care Centres, which provide services for victims of gender-based violence, saw an alarming number of young girls sexually abused in 2020.

“The burden is put onto young girls to protect themselves. How are we talking to young boys and men?”

Nala says that when it comes to seeing the benefits of CSE, “It’s difficult because we want to believe that CSE is helping young girls protect themselves from abuse, but we are not seeing that.”

According to Nala, the implementation of CSE has been a challenge and has left teachers without the necessary support to teach the content as intended. “It would help to revise CSE; times are moving fast,” she says.

A seasoned teacher of 23 years in KwaZulu-Natal, whose identity is known to Wits Vuvuzela, says she recalls being hesitant about CSE when it was introduced in the year 2000, and avoided teaching any content relating to sex.

The first lesson plan for Comprehensive Sexuality Education in a grade seven textbook. Photo: Nondumiso Lehutso

According to her, life skills and life orientation teachers in KZN were not offered support or equipped through workshops for teaching CSE when it was introduced. She says this remains the case to date and the department should have employed experts to teach CSE instead.

“I was raised in a community where we don’t talk about those things. I felt that teaching about sex would make learners think about it more.”

The teacher says that throughout her years as an educator, she learned that young boys in KZN are still not aware how to treat their female peers. “They think they own girls,” she adds, citing a lesson in which she instructed boys not to touch a girl’s breasts. Instead of acknowledging the importance of consent and boundaries, they rather laughed it off in response.

“Consent is not taught. It is important to know when and how to say no… It starts from a young age; boys are taught that when a girl says no, it means yes.”

She says this points to the reality that there is a wide gap between what is being taught in CSE at school, and what is happening and learned at home.

This is the reality for Jabulile*, a 17-year-old girl from Umtata, Eastern Cape, who is a new mom to a baby girl.

Jabulile* says she was aware of the CSE content when she felt she was ready to have her sexual debut with her 19-year-old boyfriend in January. She says she did not anticipate falling pregnant, because it was her first time having sex and she had trusted him to use protection.

When she realised her menstruation was no longer coming and she suspected pregnancy, her friends advised her to have an abortion.

She says Facebook was her first resort to search for abortion clinics, but she soon realised that it was out of the question. She could not come up with R500 for the procedure and she was five months too late for it.

Jabulile* says she could not recall having a conversation about sex with her parents and that she feels she was only partially educated about sex at school.

Although she carried her pregnancy to full term while still going to school, Jabulile* says none of her teachers, including her life orientation teacher, reached out or spoke to her about her then evident pregnancy. In most instances, the teachers did not acknowledge she was pregnant.

This might be the case for many pregnant teenagers in South Africa.

Jabulile* says she is not satisfied with CSE because, as learners, they are instructed to not have sex, but sex is inevitable for many of them.

Wits University associate professor of psychology Malose Langa says the drawback of the covid-19 pandemic meant learners could not socialise and be protected within the schooling environment.

Langa says the lockdown in 2020 and the subsequent statistics including teenage pregnancy, HIV and STI infections in learners and young people, have shown that CSE has not achieved its goals. “We do not have empirical evidence to say what CSE has done.”

According to Langa’s research, which focuses on the experiences of boys navigating their sense of self and masculinities in South Africa, learners felt they were not receiving quality education with regard to CSE. Langa pointed out that the department appointed life skills and life orientation teachers to teach CSE, without acknowledging that teachers had personal struggles in vocalising and educating their own children about anything relating to sex and sexuality.

Subsequently, Langa says, CSE has been taught from a moralistic point of view and has, in addition, prioritised heterosexual relationships, which has not given space for sex to be explored through the lens of other proclivities. This has also resulted in a failure of CSE to translate to learners who are not gender conforming or who identify outside of cisgender heterosexual prescriptions.

“The CSE content needs open-mindedness. Teachers must deal with all the questions learners pose.” This comes as Langa observed that teachers tend to only give facts about sex and barely create a safe space for learners to have honest discourses about their sexual feelings or thoughts.

Langa says CSE is a specialised area of work that needs specialised training for teaching, as is the case for most subjects.

“If this programme was introduced in 2000, but stats show that those age groups since then are the victims and perpetrators of gender-based violence, it says something,” Langa says.

Two girls learn about puberty and gender constructs from their life orientation textbooks. Photo: Nondumiso Lehutso


Mhlanga says the Department of Basic Education is introducing scripted lessons for CSE, to ensure that a common approach to teaching the content is achieved: “Every teacher in every school in every classroom [will be] teaching exactly the same content as per the lesson plans prescribed in the annual teaching plan. That means no content is optional; everything must be taught as per the curriculum policy statement.”

Mhlanga says the department is running workshops for teachers and parents regarding CSE, but that there are no prospects for the content to be revised at present and in the near future.

According to Girls Against Oppression (GAO), an organisation that advocates against the abuse of female bodies in South Africa, the issue with CSE is that it has failed to teach what consent is in schools. This has resulted in a deeply entrenched rape culture and widespread ignorance of boundaries and, in particular, “boundaries as a prerequisite for sex”.

The lack of education on consent also came to the forefront in 2019 when a now deleted South African Twitter account, “@helpsurvivors”, was created after a series of young women shared their experiences of sexual abuse. In their tweets, many young women highlighted that they were not aware that what they had been subjected to was in fact sexual abuse.

As a result, one of the most integral discourses took place on the social media platform where questions arose regarding what consent is and how it worked in situations, including in instances where women were intoxicated.

At present, on Twitter spaces, where live audio-only discussions are had, consent continues to be a concept that is highly debated and subsequently perceived as ambiguous by young people who have gone through basic education and CSE.

The most unfortunate effects continue to fall onto young girls, who have not been taught that they have agency over their bodies against the backdrop of young boys who are not taught to accept boundaries.

In addition, society and its various institutions fall short in addressing the vulnerability and susceptibility to violence that many girls in the country are subject to.

What remains clear is that CSE has the potential to effectively educate learners about sex and sexuality, as well as achieve its long-standing goals. Without critical evaluation and improvement, however, the ideas of consent and boundaries will continue to fail to make a mark in the minds of young people.

This paints a perpetually bleak future for the girl child living in South Africa, who will continue to be on the receiving end of brutality.

* Not their real name


FEATURED IMAGE: A close-up image of a young girl with her life orientation textbook. Photo: Nondumiso Lehutso