By Josephine Chinele:
Their innocence is evident through facial puberty looks. They look a bit shy but too observant and alert. This is confirmed through their group discussion points they present to a panel of their Life Skills teachers and others present at this meeting.
“We are not satisfied with how our teachers deliver Life Skills subject to us. They don’t go deep to enhance our knowledge on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR),” Novahiwa Kumtenga, a form three student at Ngumbe Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) located in Blantyre rural says.
Kumtenga and other students of this school have taken advantage of a meeting, convened for students of this school, to develop advocacy briefs on their SRHR issues to be presented to relevant authorities soon.
Without fear, she proceeds, “There is gender bias…Most male teachers seem to favour male students. They dwell much on female body anatomy instead of explaining both sides to strike a balance. The emphasis is more on the girl sexual reproductive health, there is little or nothing about the boys… the teachers are not free with us.”
Kumtenga adds: “This has contributed to low knowledge on SRH issues, a thing which has contributed to teenage pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) among our age group.”
She further reveals that adolescent students are facing a lot of SRH challenges such as lack of information, lack of access to SRH commodities such as condoms and contraceptives among others.
“We are sexually active and we would love to have safe sex. We want to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs. We are shy to go to health facilities and we would love to have such services within our reach,” Kumtenga boldly says.
The school’s Life Skills Teacher, Charity Maseya, says she tries to impart SRH knowledge to the students but resources are a challenge.
“It’s not true that we concentrate on one gender. We are well trained teachers; we give them all the necessary information. There is enough content in the syllabus but the gap comes in due to limited resources.”
“Most SRH issues need high definition illustration pictures which aren’t readily available for us to use here. The school doesn’t have. So we end up just using alternative means just to ensure that the students have something to relate with,” she tells.
In some topics, Maseya explains, there is a need for health care providers to come to the school to interact with the students but due to the limited time and resources, this has not been possible.
She however says students who need SRH services are free to go to any government facilities near the school which is either Kadidi or Chileka health centres to access the services they need.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology introduced Life Skills Education (LSE) in 2002. In 2015, aspects of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) were integrated into LSE to respond appropriately to specific gender, rights, health, and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs of young people in accordance with national laws and policies.
However, as the students have revealed, there are several constraints to the delivery of CSE, especially to Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW), including structural inadequacies within the LSE curriculum.
Sports Officer at Blantyre District Youth Office, Eunice Mtifukanji admits that the gaps that the students have highlighted are real.
“They are encountering these problems because parents aren’t free with them either. They delegate aunties, neighbours or uncles to explain sexuality issues to children. What the parents don’t know is the fact that such agents are also not free with the children, they are likely to reserve some important information,” she notes.
Mtifukanji also observes that youths are not free to go to health facilities to collect contraceptives as the environment is not friendly to their needs.
There is overwhelming evidence that Malawi’s adolescents and young people are sexually active and at higher risk of unintended pregnancies and STIs.
The 2015/16 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey says 15 percent of young women and 18 percent of young men aged 15-24 report having had a sexual encounter before age 15.
“The median age for sex debut for women and men aged 20 to 24 is 17 and 18 years old respectively,” reads the survey report in part.
But awareness, knowledge about reproductive health and HIV transmission is low among youths and adolescents. Access to services is also limited.
For school going adolescents, it is not allowed for health care providers to provide SRH services at or near to their school premises. The Ministry of Health is not permitted to distribute condoms or any other SRH services on school premises because Ministry of Education promotes abstinence, but may provide them at least 100 metres away from the schools.
Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (Repssi), Constantine Mitengo says the advocacy briefs that the young people presented are a true reflection of what is on the ground.
“We are preparing to have them present their issues to relevant authorities who may help them. It’s been noted that there is a big gap in the delivery of Life skills subject, contributing to knowledge gap and there by having many students, especially girls dropping out of school,” he says.
One of their project objectives, Mitengo says, is to find out why there is still a high school dropout rate due to pregnancies when the students are learning SRH through life skills education.
“It’s been established that teachers are not free to talk about SRHR issues with the students due to the teachers’ personal or religious beliefs…. But it’s important for the students to get the relevant information to make informed reproductive health choices,” Mitengo says.
Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) in partnership with REPSSI is implementing a project titled ‘AGYW advocacy for improved delivery of Life Skills Education in Malawi’. The project is funded by Frontline AIDS.
This project aims at empowering AGYW in Blantyre and Machinga districts to effectively engage the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Youth in advocacy towards the review of the Life Skills Education curricula in Malawi in order to strengthen the delivery of Comprehensive Sexuality Education to in-school as well as out-of-school AGYW.
This project comes at a time Malawi is struggling to address Comprehensive Sexuality issues amid a surge of teenage pregnancies and a high HIV prevalence rate among young people aged 14 to 24. Last year alone, during the Covid 19 school lockdown (March to September 2020), Ministry of Education revealed that Malawi registered 18,000 teen pregnancies among primary school learners and 3, 931 for secondary school learners.
There is a high likelihood that the conflict between education and health policies’ coupled by a lack of Youth Friendly Health Services at the facilities and poor delivery of Life Skills subject may be contributing factors to high teenage pregnancies and STI infections among the youth.