Sex and young people: lessons from cats and birds

When it comes to young people asking their parents questions about sex, they are often told: don’t you know curiosity killed the cat?

There is a popular saying in many African countries that goes: curiosity killed the cat. It comes from the fable that the cat, out of curiosity, put his head in a pot full of water and died.

When it comes to young people asking their parents questions about sex, they are often told: don’t you know curiosity killed the cat? In other words, they are supposed to just keep quiet and never ask this question anymore.

In my work with orphans and vulnerable children, I have witnessed often how this proverb was applied. Matters related to sex are not discussed with adolescents out of fear it will encourage them into a sex life too early.

But as children grow up they start to have needs; they engage in relationships but lack the critical information needed to make good decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. Out of shyness and fear of adults’ judgments, young people don’t dare to look for such information.

Young people with HIV

As far as young people living with HIV are concerned, they end up facing two issues: the fear to disclose their HIV positive status to their partners and their lack of knowledge about sexual and reproductive health. But like the cat, sooner or later they will end up with their head in the pot. As a result, some young women may have an unwanted pregnancy and some could have no choice but to use an unsafe abortion method, others may find themselves infected with HIV.

At the International Conference on Family Planning, taking place this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, young people are addressing this lack of information as one of the gaps that prevent young people affected by HIV from accessing sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning.

The gaps were identified through a global survey as part of Link Up, a project conducted by a consortium of organizations including the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS (GYCA) and ATHENA Network.

Linking up HIV and reproductive health services

The survey findings published at the conference on 13 November found that to address the gap in information, it is necessary to ensure full access to age- appropriate and comprehensive sex education, including information on HIV and sexual and reproductive health.

Information about sex can help young people gain the knowledge, skills and confidence to protect themselves when they do become sexually active. At the meeting young participants expressed their will to have sexulatity education provided at home and at school as they consider these places where they should get information.

Sometimes parents and educators believe young people are still too young to address these issues. I remember my parents telling me ‘These things are not for your age and you should focus on your education as you will have plenty of time before you need to think about this’ or complaining because a teacher did his class on puberty and reproduction.

The role of social media

To address such issues, other strategies are increasingly being used to educate young people and in today’s digital age technology and social media are playing a crucial role. As youth are more interconnected than ever, it is easy for them to pass on information to each other.

Pathfinder is one organization now focusing on a digital strategy, and its new text messaging service was also discussed at the conference. But I was left thinking about the young people who live in remote rural areas and who do not have access to the internet. We must not forget that these young people need to be reached through information channels that they are accustomed to using. To many of them, a tweet may be nothing more than the sound a bird makes.

It doesn’t matter how young people get the information, but we must ensure all barriers to accessing sexual health services are removed. Maybe if the cat had been told the pot was filled with water, he would have been careful and would still be alive today. Similarly, young people need to be informed so that they can make the smartest and best decisions about their sexuality. Because finally we can’t blame curiosity, it was ignorance that killed the cat.

Find out more about young people’s visions and priorities on the Alliance website.

Key Correspondents are reporting live from the International Conference on Family Planning and you can follow us on Twitter: @theKCteam

You can also visit FHI360 for  further live blog,  video,  and  social  media  coverage of  key conversations  emerging  from  2013.

This story was published first with Women Deliver

Photo credit: Sheikh Rajibul Islam/duckrabbit