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More evidence that sex education protects girls’ health

Hester Philips

28 March 2022

Adolescent girls who are in school and attending sex education lessons are less likely to have HIV and take sexual risks, South African study finds 

Female student smiling
Photos are used for illustrative purposes. They do not imply health status or behaviour. Photo credit: iStock/FGTrade

What is the research about? 

The fight to bring effective sex education to adolescents in South Africa has met with resistance from some religious leaders, teachers and parents. People who are against sex education mistakenly think it encourages adolescents to be promiscuous. A study of around 9,500 adolescent girls (ages 12-18) from four districts in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal is the latest evidence to show this is untrue. 

Why is this research important? 

In South Africa, adolescent girls are at risk of HIV and unintended pregnancies. 

To help address this, the South African Government has brought in comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). This teaches adolescents about sex and sexuality, and builds their understanding of healthy values and attitudes relating to sex. 

But an anti-CSE movement is growing. So robust evidence to showing that CSE protects adolescent health is essential. 

What did they find out? 

Around 5% of the adolescent girls surveyed had HIV. One-third (31%) had been pregnant.  

Adolescent girls who were in school and had been to a CSE lesson in the last 12 months were less likely to have HIV than other adolescent girls. 

Adolescent girls who had attended a CSE lesson in the last 12 months were more likely to test for HIV, whether they were still in school or not. They were also more likely to feel confident getting condoms. 

Going to school reduced the likelihood of having sex in exchange for money or gifts, having sex with older men, having two or more sex partners or having been pregnant. This was true whether a girl had been to a CSE lesson or not. Going to school was also associated with using condoms, which are the only contraception that can protect against HIV, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies.  

Adolescent girls in school, whether they had had CSE or not, were less likely to be sexually active than girls out of school. Girls in school who were sexually active were less likely to have had sex before the age of 15 than girls out of school.  

The majority (89%) of adolescent girls surveyed were in school. Nearly two-thirds (60%) had gone to a CSE lessons at school in the past year. 

What does this mean for HIV services? 

These findings shows how important keeping girls in school is.  

But it also shows the essential role that CSE plays in preventing adolescent girls from getting HIV. 

You can use this study as evidence to show people who are against CSE that the real harm to adolescent girls come from denying them access to CSE, and to education in general.

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