While teaching about HIV at a teen summer class in Owerri, Nigeria, I was surprised when Desire, 10, the youngest participant, stated: “One of the ways you can get HIV is through unprotected sexual intercourse.”
I also observed her colleagues were intrigued by her response. My surprise came from the fact that a lot of children her age, especially those in rural areas, have no idea how HIV is transmitted. So I was happy that Desire was knowledgeable about HIV and sexuality because Nigeria is a very conservative society and it is not very common to find adults talking about sex with young people. This leads to young people who have poor knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, and who eventually make uninformed decisions about their sexual health.
The purpose of the class was to provide more insight on HIV and highlight possible ways getting infected and living with HIV might impact their lives. Any society which refuses to teach young people about HIV is doing them great disservice. This is because it is not helping to mitigate the spread of the virus, other sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy. Parents and teachers are living in continued denial if they believe young people are not sexually active or aware.
Reluctant to discuss sex
Last year, I attended the youth pre-conference at the Third Nigeria family planning conference in Abuja. According to one delegate, the reasons why the society feels reluctant to teach young people about sex range from wanting to prevent premature exposure to knowledge about sex to simply feeling awkward about discussing it.
But the question that continues to beg for an answer is: ‘At what age should young people receive sex education?
There is no doubt that sex education should be age appropriate and culture-specific. According to the World Bank, the majority of Nigeria’s population is below the age of 25, with 22 percent between the ages of 10-19 years. This highlights the importance of introducing sexual and reproductive health messages to young people by the right individuals like parents, trained facilitators or peer educators. The data further reveals that the average age when sexual activity begins is relatively low, 14 years for girls and 15 years for boys.
The global issue of teenage sex
Issues around young people and sexual health are not just a problem for Nigeria, and with AIDS being the second leading cause of death for adolescents around the world it is a global issue.
According to the India Times: “The age at which the urban teens in India are becoming sexually active has gone down to 14 years, and the rate at which they are contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is on the rise.”
A recent survey, reported in the article, revealed that the source of sexual information for the majority of young people was their friends, with the second main source being online media (including pornography), while very few accessed health information from doctors. According to the survey, major reasons for this were fear of being judged and misconceptions about medical procedures.
In many countries, early age of sexual activity coupled with poor knowledge of HIV transmission and limited access to HIV prevention and treatment services, lead to tens of thousands of unnecessary adolescent deaths. In 2013, Ethiopia had the highest number of AIDS-related adolescent deaths at 13,000, Nigeria was third with 12,000 and India ninth with 5,200 (UNAIDS and UNICEF All In datasheet).
Compulsory sex education
It’s always just a matter of time before adolescents start experimenting with sex, but it tends to happen faster with the availability of non-restricted access to sexually explicit content, according to this report on Psychology Today.
And with so many adolescents becoming sexually active in their early teens, it is of huge concern that their main sources of information are from their friends and pornographic material.
In Nigeria, to win the battle to end adolescent AIDS, parents and wider society need to stop mistaking sex education for intercourse education. An elderly teacher once taught us during a youth camp that removing the mystery that shrouds the private parts of the body could be a step in the right direction in talking about sexual health at home.
Since most researches are showing earlier sexual debuts, parents need to find innovative ways to introduce sexual education to their children before they learn from the wrong sources.
But we must take it a step further. I believe sex education must be made compulsory and strategically introduced at the appropriate ages so that young people will be able to make informed choices when they are faced with important decisions that affect their sexual health and rights.