Parents Need Peer Education, Too

Ever since loveLife launched in 1999, the organisation has sought to get South Africans talking about HIV and its underlying sexual dynamics. We therefore applaud initiatives such as the film Protection, which Mara Kardas-Nelson described in her article “Film takes gloves off condom use” (Mail & Guardian, 14-20 Jan 2010) as “a platform to engage with the complexities of sex and masculinity in an age of a harrowing epidemic, changing traditions and shifting gender norms” in our collaborative fight against HIV.

One of these changing traditions is the role of parents as educator – a role that many parents say they no longer fill; or are ill-equipped to carry out in contemporary society. And yet it is a role that has a pivotal part to play in the fight against HIV.

Like it or not, parents and guardians exert considerable influence on their children’s sexual behaviour. loveLife's research has consistently found that young people first want to hear about sex from their parents, and want a continuing conversation with them about issues of life, relationships, sex and sexuality. Their primary source of information, however, is from friends (37%) while only 14% report getting their information from a family member (parent, guardian or sibling).

We cannot afford to let this slide. The South African epidemic shows signs of a decline in HIV prevalence among youth – from 10.3% in 2005 to 8.6% in 2008 among 15 to 24 year olds, according to the HSRC – but these gains need to be accelerated. The role of parents and guardians needs to be reinforced as a behavioural intervention to reduce risk-taking behaviour among our youth.

To gain a deeper understanding of why parents are not speaking about sex and sexuality to their teens, loveLife conducted qualitative studies with parents in several communities across South Africa last year. South African parents are telling us they are afraid to speak with their teens.

On the one hand, they raise the perception of young people rejecting traditional values and not respecting theirelders. On the other, they reveal their own self-consciousness at not having all the facts to serve as effective sexuality educators.

We live in a MXit world where mobile rules and parents feel alienated by the technological hold TV, computers and cell phones have on their kids’ life-worlds. Trying to talk about the birds and bees can be scary enough; doing it when teens are ‘sexting’ each other and accessing pornography on their phones can be downright terrifying.

And even for those parents who are eager to talk to their children about sex, many are uncertain about when, how and what to communicate.

The loveLife call centre receives 6 000 calls per month from parents requesting information on HIV/Aids; sexual issues and adolescent development. But, as research has shown, a one-way flow in communications is not enough: for behaviour change to be sustained, communication needs to be horizontal and communities must take ownership of their responses.

Just as loveLife’s approach has moved beyond safe-sex messaging to a youth development model that holistically addresses the individual, social and structural factors that drive HIV infections, so too do we need parent development.

That’s why loveLife introduced Born Free Dialogues (BFDs) in 2006 – small community events where parents and youth get the chance to talk. The advantages of this deceptively simple format are huge: not only do the dialogues allow both adults and young people to increase their knowledge levels, together; they also act as the conduit for an ongoing discussion at home. They therefore allow participants – young and old – to internalise topics that have long been taboo in everyday family conversation.

loveLife has also repositioned its Born Free Dialogues to get parents to confront the societal and structural challenges their children face growing up (rather than simply discussing the ABCs of prevention).

But, perhaps most importantly, dialogues and discussions such as these are critical to shattering the unrelenting view that talking about sex encourages youth to have sex.

As boxing coach George Newena tells Mara Kardas-Nelson in the M&G: “To me, by doing that [talking to his kids about Aids and sex], it’s as if I’m promoting my kids to go about sleeping with boys or girls.”

We need to keep driving home the message that research shows educating young people about sex and condoms “actually leads to a decrease in adolescent sex, unplanned pregnancies and STIs” (AIDS ACTION, 2000).

By reframing sexuality education as more than just talking about the ABCs, but “as a life-long process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs and values about identity, relationships and intimacy”; as something that addresses “the biological, socio-cultural, psychological and spiritual dimensions of sexuality from a cognitive, affective and behavioural domain including skills to communicate effectively and make responsible decisions” (The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS) definition), we can make parents and guardians feels less awkward about their role as educator.

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