High schools in KwaZulu-Natal must immediately begin discussing how to provide pupils with access to condoms and how to facilitate voluntary HIV/Aids testing.
The time for debate on these contentious matters is over, according to provincial Education MEC Senzo Mchunu.
It is a matter of “how” rather than “should or should not” that schools had to figure out.
Mchunu was speaking to The Mercury on Wednesday following a meeting of the province’s executive council’s social protection and community development cluster, which backed the “controlled” distribution of condoms in schools – but not without thorough consultation with parents and governing bodies.
The proposed provision of condoms last year sparked fierce criticism.
But the Integrated School Health Programme, a collaboration between the national departments of health and basic education launched last year, has also been hailed for the myriad other “critical” services it affords pupils on school premises. These include the assessment of motor skills, oral hygiene, vision, hearing and mental health by healthcare professionals.
Mchunu has become increasingly concerned by the “social ills” plaguing KZN schools – not only that 10 595 pupils fell pregnant in 2011 (and the risks associated with unprotected sex) but also that drugs and alcohol were being brought into classrooms.
While schools must remain places of teaching and learning and not become “health centres”, the government and civil society could no longer close their eyes to the escalating dangers, Mchunu said.
Bar certain provisos, NGOs and governing body associations were not opposed to Mchunu’s stance.
While the school health programme provided for voluntary HIV/Aids testing of pupils at clinics in their communities, “we don’t think (that’s adequate)”, Mchunu said.
“And it is exactly what we want school governing bodies (and parents) to discuss… We no longer need to be ashamed to accept that children are sexually active at a young age,” Mchunu said.
The emphasis would be on schools where pupil pregnancy was prevalent.
“We are not going to force anybody. But we will be persuasive.”
NGOs Equal Education and the Treatment Action Campaign have welcomed the provision of condoms in schools, but believe it would be a “serious problem” if parent bodies were able to veto it.
Equal Education’s Yoliswa Dwane said she would not “strongly advocate” HIV testing on school premises, but if pupils older than 16 wanted to be screened, counselling was a condition.
The KZN head of the National Association of School Governing Bodies, Reginald Chiliza, backed Mchunu’s preventative stance. However, he was against testing on school grounds, saying he was worried that privacy would not be guarded well enough.
Vee Gani, from the Parents Association of KZN, said the sexual health services were necessary “in certain schools”.
Tim Gordon, the national head of the Governing Body Foundation, said they would welcome a “carefully considered and managed” programme of sexual health.