On Sex Ed

Let’s talk about sex. Of the 39.5 million people living with HIV globally, 63% of those people are in Sub-Saharan Africa.(1) Of the eight United Nations Millennium Declarations, three concern sexual education: supporting maternal health, promoting gender equality and empowering women, and combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS.(2) Despite the great leaps made in access to ARVs and maternal health technology, improvement in these areas has been slow.

To really change the face of Global Health, we need to innovate around the way we spread information. One study, The World We Want, states: “Going forward, areas of convergence include the need for more action to build national health information systems, strengthen national and global accountability mechanisms, adopt a more inclusive, participatory approach to development.”(2)

In other words, we need better Sex Ed.

In January the Wellness team here at African Leadership Academy launched an innovative approach to sexual education. Last week marked the end of our course, which was hugely successful.

In broad strokes, the curriculum was designed to support student-centered learning. Rather than show videos about condoms, birth control, and the biology of intercourse, we went an entirely different route. We focused on narrative.

This was particularly useful in our diverse setting. I teach at a school where the student body represents over 40 African countries alone and so views on sex, sexuality and intimacy are many and divergent. So we started with touch. What does touch mean to you, in your home, and in your culture? We discussed the ways in which different cultures kiss multiple  times to greet, where others give a shallow hug. We then thought about different narratives around sex that exist in our different cultures and brought in Lebo Ramafoko, CEO of Soul City Institute, a non-for-profit that communicates public health issues through mass media, to give her uniquely South African perspective on the topic:

“The thing I want us to consider is the role of silence in our narratives about sex,” she told a crowded auditorium of students. “You cannot control what you do not acknowledge or do not own. We don’t talk about pleasure and sex or about owning our sexuality. I don’t mind a narrative about what you should do…what I mind is the absence of narratives about desire–I mind what is omitted.”

She went on to illustrate the pain accompanied by silence: “The thing about silence is that you can all pretend you’re not having sex until you fall pregnant,” as Lebo did at the young age of 19. “And something replaces the silence and that is shame. Moreover, the narrative around being pregnant had to do with what will the neighbors say and oh she thinks she’s better that us but nothing about being young, pregnant, and scared.”

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Soul City is in the business of spreading positive messages around sex by running similar workshops with young people and parents all over South Africa who are struggling to break down the cultural barriers that exist around this taboo topic: “The silence is what makes me do the work that I am doing: the 20 to 24 year olds I work with are four times more likely to contract HIV because they do not talk about what they need–we need to interrogate the control we have on young women’s sexuality. What’s missing from our narrative about sex is responsibility but you can’t talk about responsibility if you don’t talk about pleasure. If we raise young people who cannot speak honestly about sex then we are bringing up a very broken society. The silence gets broken when you deconstruct.”

The reactions in the auditorium were mixed. Where some students felt total catharsis in Lebo’s words, others were deeply offended. The reactions spoke quite clearly to the need to give the students ownership over their learning. In order to really deconstruct that silence, which Lebo brought to our attention, the students must get curious enough to give sex education a voice.


So, for the next few weeks our kids did research and last week they presented the culmination of their studies.

In my class, I saw presentations on Female Genital Mutilation, child brides, and rape and consent. In another class, students gave a presentation on marital rape in the context of intimacy, and intimacy between men in platonic relationships, and a demonstration of how little knowledge people have about sex, contraceptives, and STI’s.

We, the teachers, watched the students take ownership over their sexual education in a profound way. They were put in a teaching position where they had to feel comfortable voicing opinions on sex and intimacy. They also had the chance to challenge one another’s preconceptions about sex. Ultimately, the goal was for them to link their cultural narratives on sex to public health issues and they did that, quite successfully.

This semesters course certainly stands as proof that student-centered learning is one highly effective way of thinking about changing the face of Global Health through education.


Work Cited:

  1. UNAIDS (2006)
  2. The World We Want

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