Sex isn’t the most fancied topic in Africa. Talking about it publicly is only just shedding its taboo status. Which is a little strange considering the fact that cases of teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS are many. And sexual abuse is not hard to come by. This hasn’t escaped the eye of the world. This is why United States, welding its mighty influence, stepped up to the plate with a staggering monetary aid for sex education.
Abstinence programs and sex education in Africa
As part of its large President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program aimed at stopping the spread of HIV around the world, the United States has, in the last decade, spent over $1.4 billion funding abstinence programs and sex education in Africa.
The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program (PEPFAR) has provided lifesaving HIV drugs to over 5 million people. This effort has helped to prevent nearly 1 million babies from getting HIV from their mothers.
However, even though many health officials consider the program a success, a new research published in Health Affairs shows otherwise. According to that research, the program hasn’t really had that much of an impact on the general level of sexual awareness in the continent.
Ideal sex education could be abstinence-based, sexual risk based, or it could combine both. This approach ensures that the need for abstinence is understood while also educating people about the management of sexual risk should they choose to partake in it. The latter covers issues such as the age of consent, the use of contraceptives and ways to avoid sexually transmitted infections.
In conservative African circles, the approach practiced is abstinence-based. “No sex until marriage”. Contraceptives are not even an option to begin with. Do you remember that famous “HIV no dey show for face” ad in the early 2000s? Or the Zip Up tagline?
According to John Dietrich, who is a professor of political science at Bryant University, there were initial fears that these projects would be used to impose the sexual values of Americans on Africans — such as teenage sex, for example, or even the hot-button issue of sexual orientation. Homosexuality and other forms of queer sexual orientation are still severely disregarded and criminalized in most parts of Africa.
With such a huge amount spent on sex education, the need to assess the success of the project arose. So, Eran Bendavid, an infectious disease doctor, and his team at Stanford University did a survey. The objective of the survey was to ascertain the efficacy of the abstinence programs. The survey which spanned 22 African countries analyzed responses to questions like how many sexual partners a respondent has had and the age of first sexual experience.
Of the 22 countries surveyed, only fourteen of them had actually received funding from the PEFPAR project as at 2013. The other eight had not.
The research team concluded from the responses that there had been no detectable change in people’s perception. It further reveals that there was no change in choices about sex between the countries who received the funding and those who didn’t. The average age of first sexual experience are similarly low. Just as the rate of teenage pregnancies are similar too.
These practices are deeply rooted in culture. It might take longer than a decade to excavate. With the immediacy and reach of social media, one can only hope that things change for the better.