I have been a teacher all my working life, first in a rural high school and currently in a university. As a professor of rural education, my work focuses on gender and sexuality and their impact on girls’ education. I trace my interest in this subject back to my own childhood in rural South Africa.
In primary school, my teachers, my parents and my peers regarded me as ‘clever’. I always performed in the top of my classes. I was popular, liked by both adults and children, and was outgoing, confident and assertive in my approach to life.
However, this changed in my early teens. For those who were outside my immediate circle of friends and caregivers (teachers, parents and relatives) being outgoing tended to be interpreted as too forward or flirtatious, particularly for a girl.
As a result I got labelled as a ‘slut’, and some adults in the community did not hesitate to comment on my behaviour, often in the presence of my peers. While I either pretended not to hear these comments, or not to care, I was often embarrassed and hurt.
I learned to be more cautious about my platonic relationships with boys, and lost my spontaneity. I avoided dating for as long as I could. Even when I finally agreed to date a boy in my mid-teens, I became very skilled in coming up with excuses for why I could not meet with him alone. I was determined to avoid anything that might have been interpreted as sexual.
By shaming me into avoiding relationships with boys, the adults in my life prevented me from making informed decisions about my body and sexuality. I made it through school and university without becoming pregnant or getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI), not because I was properly informed about my sexual and reproductive health, but because I was ashamed of my own sexuality.
This left me ill-prepared to negotiate life in school and later on university campuses, where unequal gender roles often play out through gender-based violence, including sexual harassment and violence.
Teachers and other adults continue to police women’s sexuality. The gaze always falls on the girl or young woman: Why is she dressed like that? What is she doing with a man old enough to be her father? If only these girls remained virgins, HIV infections and pregnancy rates would drop, and so on.
Seldom are questions asked about the male roles in these relationships or their negative consequences. Taking a moralistic stance that mostly blames girls without giving them appropriate sex education exposes young people to the very dangers we seek to avoid such as unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
In spite of a national policy that mandates the teaching of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) education, South African schools and universities continue to either marginalise or ignore the topic. This has devastating effects on young people, particularly girls and young women.
For example, while pregnancy rates among South African adolescents are low compared to its neighbours, a 2011 study suggests that “one in five women will have given birth by the age of 18, and that more than 30 percent of women nationally have their first child before they are 20 years old,” with many of these children unplanned or unwanted.
This can block the road to education, particularly for young women. Research in South Africa indicates that while both boys and girls drop out of school, the two groups tend to aance different reasons for leaving, with boys and girls citing poverty, and girls citing pregnancy, child care and family responsibility.
Decades after my experience at school, the shaming continues. In a debate in parliament in March, President Jacob Zuma called for teenage mothers to be banished and separated from their babies until they finish their schooling. These comments were widely condemned and contradict official government policy, which stipulates that no learner should be excluded from school due to pregnancy or parenthood.
Zuma is not alone in this view of female sexuality and reproduction. Another case that made headlines in 2014 involved a group of young women who, after being awarded scholarships to study in India, were reportedly compelled to take a contraceptive (Implanon) before their departure. This was to help them avoid ‘falling pregnant’. Notably, nothing was done to ‘help’ the men in the group to avoid making somebody pregnant.
These examples reflect gender stereotypes that depict women and girls as morally weak and therefore in need of policing. We stigmatise the girls who ‘fall pregnant’, while the boys and men who father their children often escape any scrutiny.
These attitudes often prevent open discussions around gender, sex and reproduction either at home or at school, leaving young people to learn about sex from the media and peers. Without the appropriate context, this information is at best inadequate and often inaccurate.
If we are to prevent unwanted pregnancies and related barriers to girls’ education, we need to do things differently. This means implementing an SRH education programme that targets both boys and girls. We must adequately prepare young people to make informed decisions about when and how to have sex, as well as when to have children.
To do this, we must create opportunities for boys and girls to openly and critically examine the gender stereotypes that make it possible for families, schools and communities to shame and blame young people, particularly girls, for expressing their sexuality.
 Maharaj, P. and Rogan, M. (2011). Missing opportunities for preventing unwanted pregnancy: a qualitative study of emergency contraception. Journal of Family Planning Reproductive Health Care, 37, 89ndash96.
 Morrell, R., Bhana, D and Shefer, T. (2012). Pregnancy and Parenthood in South African Schools. In Morrell, R., Bhana, D and Shefer, T. (eds). (2012). Books and Babies: Pregnancy and Young Parents in Schools. Cape Town: HSRC Press, 1-30.
a href=”http:newvoicesfellows.aspeninstitute.orgFellowsDetails0037Relebohile-Moletsane” target=”_blank”Relebohile Moletsanea is the J.L. Dube Chair in Rural Education at the University of KwaZulundashNatal, and has extensive experience in educational development, curriculum studies, and other issues at the intersection of gender and education. a href=”http:newvoicesfellows.aspeninstitute.orgFellows?Class_Year=2015″ target=”_blank”She is a 2015 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowa.
Source : allAfrica.com