Empowering Adolescents to Make Wise Sexual Choices

Danielle Toppin

While acknowledging the "cultural context" in which many students live, Jamaican Minister of Education Andrew Holness has refused to supply students with condoms in the schools.

For me, adolescence
was a beautiful, yet confusing, period.  Coming into my own as a
sexual being, a young woman, with sexual desires and curiosities was
troublesome for me because by and large I lived in a world that taught
me that I was a "bad girl" for feeling that way.  Managing
sex and my sexuality was not something I was ever taught about…not
in school or in my home. Sex was just something that should have been
avoided at all costs. End of story.   

Much of what
I learned about sex as a teenager I either learned from my peers, or
I figured out by myself.  Like many of those around me I entered
into sexual relationships early and, by the age of fifteen, I was already
making my way through the concerns that come with being sexually active:
the threat of pregnancy; pap smears; and negotiating condom use.   

Sadly, for
many teenagers, the sexual landscape is still very uncertain and unsure
terrain and many of their concerns and questions still go unanswered.
Even in the age of information the issue of sexual activity and interest
amongst adolescents is still a taboo one.  When I was a teenager the biggest concern amongst my peer group was pregnancy; but for teenagers
these days, a lack of information and avenues for safe discussion is
potentially far more dangerous. 

With this past month’s
commemoration of World AIDS Day, the uncertainty of this sexual terrain
was sharply brought into focus with news
to notable increases in HIV/AIDS infection amongst the 15-24 age group.   
With data released by the Jamaican Ministry of Health and the Environment
indicating that AIDS is the second leading cause of death for youths
in this age group, the risks associated with inadequate information,
access and unsafe sexual practices have been highlighted as key areas
for concern. 

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Against this
backdrop, the focus for  December 2008’s commemoration of World AIDS Day
has been placed on youth; with leaders in the political, education and
health arenas calling
on young Jamaicans

to adopt a proactive and leadership role in stemming the spread of the
disease, and in increasing tolerance for those affected.  Calling
on young people in the 15 – 24 age group to become advocates and agents
of change, one official from the Ministry of Health’s National HIV/STI
Control Programme reaffirmed the unit’s commitment to equip
"young people with the necessary information, skills and attitude
to stay HIV-free". 

however, the official position taken by another arm of the government,
the Ministry of Education, has remained steadfast in its resistance
to the
distribution of condoms in Jamaican schools

The ministry has instead reaffirmed that its’ focus will be on its’
health and family life education program, which is designed to provide
students with access to information that would empower them to make
healthy lifestyle decisions.   

While acknowledging
the "cultural context" in which many students live, which may lead
to early initiation of sexual activity, Minister of Education Andrew
Holness has refused to supply students with condoms in the schools. 
This principle is in direct conflict with that of the Ministry of Health,
whose policy allows for the provision of condoms to adolescents through
its’ local health centers.  Access through these centers has
however been reportedly undermined by adolescents’ unwillingness to
go into the clinics to receive condoms, because of the condescending
attitudes of the health care workers.   

despite an official approach which supports the empowerment of adolescents,
the Ministry of Education is still undermining the right of these teenagers
to protect themselves.   

Students themselves
have issued
a call
for access
to condoms through schools. Noting their unwillingness to make use of
other avenues such as the health centers, students themselves have noted
that condoms should be made accessible through schools’ guidance counselors. 

It seems hypocritical
to me to make a statement regarding the empowerment of adolescents while steadfastly denying them access to a range of choices.  This
continues to rely heavily on a moralistic approach based
on the idea that students themselves do not know how to manage their
behavior and by extension their sexual lives.   

is about access to choice. When we provide information without access we shoot ourselves in the foot by limiting the extent to which adolescents
can protect their lives.  With young people increasingly
affected and infected by HIV/AIDS, we must be willing to go further and to engage in discussions that may make us uncomfortable; but which
may ultimately save our children’s lives. 

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