South Africa’s sex education aims to reduce gender-based violence

Children playing in the streets of Soweto Township. Soweto stands for South Western Township. (Hannah J Farrow/MEDILL)

By Hannah Farrow
Medill Reports

Growing up in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Asa Jali had a narrow outlook on relationships. “You learn that if your boyfriend hits you, that’s how they show you love. So if he doesn’t, he doesn’t love you. If there’s no violence, he doesn’t love you,” Jali, 23, said.

Her views are common throughout the country. Like most of her friends, Jali didn’t learn anything about sex, let alone consent, in high school. “You don’t know anything about your vagina as well, what satisfaction means and how to get an orgasm.”

Despite South Africa’s Life Orientation curriculum — a nationwide program for grades four through 12 that includes robust sex education — gender-based violence remains a nationwide issue in South Africa. The Department of Basic Education reported in 2019 that more than one in three girls is sexually assaulted before the age of 17.

Asa Jali sitting outside in a courtyard at Wits University. (Hannah J Farrow/MEDILL)

When asked about what she learned in Life Orientation, Jali said, “literally nothing.” She learned about sex through her experiences and from her friends telling her of theirs. “It’s only when you leave that space and come to this space that you learn that no, it’s not how it’s supposed to be,” Jali said, now a student at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Though the Life Orientation program was initiated after the fall of apartheid in 1994, reinforcing how it’s taught has become part of the government’s five-step emergency plan to decrease an alarming uptick in gender-based violence, or GBV, nationwide. According to the South African Police Service, rates of sexual assault rose from 88.3 per 100,000 in 2017-18 to 90.9 in 2018-19. Training the Life Orientation teachers is the state’s effort to stop this trend in South Africans’ lives.

The program begins in grade four, where some children don’t even know that they’re being abused, said Elijah Mhlanga, the spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education. “If you look at the content, we say, ‘Identify your body parts. Which ones do you think are sacred? Which ones do you think no one should touch? Which ones do you believe someone needs permission to touch?’” Mhlanga said. “And then once you tell them that, they start to realize that, ‘Oh, this person had been abusing me all this time.’”

Life Orientation was introduced as a text-only curriculum, and the material changes with the student’s age. In grade four, students learn how to respect their bodies and others’, how to identify bullying, and the basics of HIV/AIDS. In grade seven, lessons involve setting goals, what to expect during puberty, how to find healthy relationships, and the basics of sex. And by grade 12, students are learning to put their goals in action, identify and prevent STIs, and look ahead to the future.

The material hasn’t changed since 2000 — and isn’t going to, according to Mhlanga. “What we are changing is how it is taught,” Mhlanga said.

Life Orientation was implemented before social media, and the teachers would rely on magazines to teach the material. “When it was first put in place, there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter, there was no social media, which are now platforms that are giving young people access to information,” Mhlanga said.

This increased access also affected the instructors. “Teachers, when they go into Google, you type one word and you get a million results, and they wouldn’t know what to use, so they would end up using inappropriate content,” Mhlanga said. In some cases, he recalls, teachers would use explicit videos to explain sexual concepts.

At the State of the Nation address on Feb. 13, 2020, South African president Cyril Ramaposa said that around $100 million U.S. had been allocated to the emergency plan to combat these issues for the current fiscal year.

Part of that money is going towards scripted Life Orientation lesson plans and three printed booklets to accompany each grade: one for the teacher, one for the student, and one for the student’s parents. “We looked at UNESCO papers, we looked at the World Health Organization documents, which indicated to us that some of the tactics of teaching were outdated,” Mhlanga said. “We said we are going to introduce scripted lesson plans so that we standardize and make it uniform — the content, the plans, and the pace of the content — and make sure that all of what is taught is age-appropriate.”

They’re also sending teachers through training to ensure they’re both teaching the curriculum correctly and appropriately responding when students confide in them that they’ve been raped. Out of 410,000 teachers nationwide, 7,000 received training so far, up from 500 teachers in 2015.

“We felt that there was a need for us to fix that part in terms of the content that they’re using for teaching, but we also analyzed the ultimate objective of the curriculum,” Mhlanga said. “What we wanted to achieve was to reduce incidents of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, also HIV infections, as well as sexually transmitted infections.”

Tsakani Mhlanga, Mhlanga’s daughter, said her experience in Life Orientation was positive. Her fellow classmates — all female, as is customary in South Africa’s majority single-sex high school system — had open and honest conversations around serious issues. “I think my parents have created a safe space for all of us,” Tsakani, 19, said. In their family, they openly speak about topics ranging from gender roles to sex to violence. But it’s not like that in the rest of her friends’ homes, where parents are more strict. Of one friend, she said, “Her mom is always just like, ‘No, you shouldn’t be worried about this. You’re a child.’ And I’m like, but it’s happening every day.”

And GBV is happening every day, particularly in black communities. The majority of rapes in South Africa are committed against black women. Gail Smith, senior manager for strategic integration at the mass media non-profit Soul City Institute, said poverty is a large driving factor. “Proximity to vulnerable girls is a reality of life in South Africa,” she said. “If you are a 15-year-old girl living in an informal settlement…your shack is unlikely to have toilets. If you wanted to go to the toilet at night, you would have to run the gamut of walking to find the closest pit latrine.” Because it’s dark, chances of being attacked going there are high, Smith said. These dangerous scenarios mean that even primary school-aged girls are exposed to adult risks.

Children posing for a picture in Soweto Township. Soweto stands for South Western Township. (Hannah J Farrow/MEDILL)

“We are seeing 10-year-olds pregnant, presenting at clinics. The nurses, when receiving them in terms of the law, are meant to call in the police. They are not because they don’t understand the law themselves,” Smith said. “So what they are doing is they are processing these children into the system as if they are normal, grown women who are pregnant.” From April 2017 to March 2018, the Department of Basic Education reported 2,716 births from 10- to 14-year-old mothers. Among 15- to 19-year olds, there were 113,700 births.

Smith described black women’s role as being on the bottom of the social pyramid. “Because of the nature of apartheid — it wasn’t an irrational form of racism. It was super rational. It was well constructed. It was a race-based caste system that infiltrated everything,” she said. “In that caste system, native women or black women in particular were cemented into the bottom of the caste system by law in particular ways.”

The end of apartheid dismantled that legal system, but after years of race-based processes, black men still find it hard to climb the ranks, and black women find it even harder.

But why rape? “What is one of the most humiliating things you can do to someone?” Shenna Swemmer, a researcher for the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, answered the question with a question. “You think of the worst things you could do to someone…gang raping them, those types of things are the most terrible things you can do. You have this hatred — hatred to women, hatred to others, hatred to minorities — seems like a perfect way to degrade someone.”

It stems from powerlessness. “During apartheid era, our police and security didn’t see black women’s bodies as rape-able bodies, so it wasn’t a big deal if a black woman was raped,” Swemmer said. “Our country specifically, we have a very terrible history that has never been dealt with. We just sort of got told, ‘This is the new South Africa, you guys will carry on now and forget.’”

It’s not any safer in schools. “If you’re in a public school, and you’re a woman, you’re very likely to be raped,” she said. “Women, girl children, any kind of gender minority are not safe in any space in our country.”

Swemmer says what the country needs is to be educated. “We can deal with what’s happening at the moment — we have to deal with it,” Swemmer said. “But we have to now start creating places where people aren’t discriminatory in the same way.”

Kgomotso Maloka, left, and her partner Nokuthula Mofokeng, right, sitting outside Goodhope Restaurant in Alexandra Township waiting for their food. (Hannah J Farrow/MEDILL)

Nokuthula Mofokeng, a woman who went through school before Life Orientation, said she didn’t talk about sex growing up. “You can’t talk about sex. We’re blacks…you don’t learn. You find yourself, there, having sex. Next thing you’re pregnant and you’re like, ‘Oops.’ And only then when you go to the hospital you find out you shouldn’t have sex with boys without a condom,” Mofokeng, 34, said. “You’re already in a situation and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what happens. This [guy] came inside of me and now I’m pregnant.’”

Her partner, Kgomotso Maloka, 37, had a different experience. Her mom hosted a period party where a social worker held private conversations with her and her friends about sex and how to avoid infections and pregnancy — a very uncommon notion during that time.

Combining their different experiences, Maloka and Mofokeng are raising their 13-year-old son with open and honest conversations. “He’s at the age where he’s frickin’ masturbating and I’m like, ‘What am I supposed to say?’ He’s watching porn and I’m like, ‘You’re watching porn?!’” Mofokeng said.

Their son also has a girlfriend, and Maloka and Mofokeng treat her with the same bluntness. “I had a conversation with both of them. ‘You have boobs, you have a period. He’s got sperm. So if you guys, when you go on your park dates, and you take off your underwear, and he takes his thing and puts it inside of you: baby,’” Mofokeng said. “I’m not looking after a father.”

Access to porn is also different. “They’re exposed to a lot more than we were. So if you had to find a porn magazine, you had to find it somewhere. They can just log on and there you go,” Maloka said.

Life Orientation is a good thing, they said, resulting in greater contraceptive access and fewer preteen pregnancies for young relatives in their families.

The date is still to be determined when teacher training is implemented in every province, but they’re testing it in areas where violence and diseases are real problems, and their goal is to make a lasting impact, said Elijah with the Department of Basic Education. “Everything that we talk about comes from respect and consent as being the basic concepts that we want [the students] to internalize,” Mhlanga said. “We want each and every one of the learners to understand and carry that concept with them and practice it in all aspects of life.”

Photo at top: Children play in the streets of Soweto Township. Soweto stands for South Western Township. (Hannah J Farrow/MEDILL)