I was privileged to spend some time with some gorgeous girls in Samoa last year. As my blog posting has been sporadic-at-best as of late, this has sat in my 'drafts' way too long!
In 2013 I was planning a family holiday to Samoa. As someone passionate about social justice, I like to ‘give back’ to the communities I live in and visit. I had helped organised an aid package to go to Samoa Victim Support Group previously, and I thought I may be able to offer a workshop to the girls at their residential shelter. Wellington-based charity SpinningTop connected me to their President Lina and we organised for me to provide a workshop for them.
What I Did
When we arrived in Apia I met with Lina at the SVSG offices and she gave me more background on their organisation. We discussed what I would be teaching the girls and I gave Lina a couple of boxes of supplies I had brought with me – Air NZ had kindly agreed to transport these for free. The boxes contained some donated stationery items, disposable sanitary pads donated by Kotex, as well as re-usable packs from Days For Girls NZ (containing underwear, cloth pads, and a wash cloth).
I spent a morning with approximately 30 girls - the girls were fantastic and really engaged, and the staff were very supportive. The girls were gorgeous, so full of smiles and laughter. They are survivors for whom I have the utmost of respect for. Lina had told me some of their stories, and these girls have all been on traumatic and heartbreaking journeys. Most of them are with SVSG because they are survivors of sexual violence, for many of them this is incest. Many of them have been pregnant as a result of this violence. Tragically in many cases these girls have been disowned and blamed for bringing shame on the family. SVSG provides safety, education and a home for these girls. SVSG also manages the legal process to bring justice for these children.
The girls had lots of questions and I felt like we could have spent a lot more time together. The level of knowledge and understanding of how their bodies work was very low. Most knew very little about the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and childbirth - despite there being pregnant girls and girls who had already birthed in the group. My (then 10 month old) daughter Nina accompanied me and I found that having her there was a good ‘icebreaker’ with the girls. The girls enjoyed chatting and playing with Nina as they warmed up to me. As it turned out Nina ended up sleeping in my front-pack for most of the morning as I taught - it was more than 30 degrees in the classroom so we were rather sweaty by the end of it!
I was a little taken aback when TV cameras arrived just as we were starting. They filmed the introductory part of my session and then in the middle of the session I was called out for an interview. I was a little anxious about this as had had no warning and I wasn't sure what angle they were going to take, but I kept it very neutral and emphasised the importance of all people having a good understanding of their bodies and sexuality. It came across well on the news that night.
I left SVSG feeling like what I had done that day with the girls was but a drop in the ocean. I felt like I had empowered the the girls with knowledge of their bodies, but also knew there was so much information we didn't cover. SVSG were hugely grateful for the workshop, but I wanted to do more. These girls really touched my heart. There is a huge need for ongoing body/sexuality education as well as antenatal education for the pregnant girls. SVSG has been on my mind a lot since.
Earlier this year SpinningTop approached me to see if I would be interested in offering a more comprehensive programme for the girls at SVSG. With SpinningTop's support, I am returning to provide a one-week programme in August 2014. I am currently fundraising for supplies (food, baby formula, educational supplies) for SVSG and am hugely appreciative of any donations. For more details on this project, please click here.
With the media furore over school sexuality education over the past week, many parents have been asking what their expectations of their child’s school sexuality education should be... So here it is, Part One of the non-official Concise Guide to School Sexuality Education in NZ...
The sexuality education prescribed in the current curriculum is a far cry from the sex ed most parents would have received when they were at school. For many, this “education” now serves as a hilarious dinner party story, for others sex ed barely existed or was so terrible that all memories have been banished. Indeed, my own high school sex ed was taught by a very embarrassed science teacher who managed to get through the entire 'reproduction' unit without once mentioning the word ‘penis’ – he simply referred to that thing as a "John Thomas”. And we were told we must always make sure we put the Johnny Condom on the John Thomas. The standout memory from the ‘period talk’ at primary school was the horror of the “pad burner” - a raging inferno in the girls toilets with which we were instructed to put our used pads. I am not sure I ever raised the confidence to use that thing! (I am told they no longer have these at schools - phew!)
Today I want to address three main questions that I have been asked over the past week:
1. How much influence do I, as a parent, have on the sexuality education programme at my child’s school?
The most important thing for parents to keep in mind is that school sexuality education programmes are a partnership between the school and the community. As such, schools are obliged to consult with their community every two years on the content of their health education programme. According to Section 60B of the Education Act 1989, every school Board of Trustees is required to inform the school community about the content of the sexuality education programme and consult with members of the school community regarding the way in which the school should implement this education.
Following this consultation, a school sexuality education policy and programme are constructed. In reality, the definition of ‘consultation’ can be interpreted quite broadly. Some schools send out information in school newsletters, others organise information evenings. Some schools don’t do much consulting at all. This doesn’t mean they are ‘bad’ schools, it’s just that the reality for schools is that they are operating in a jam-packed curriculum in an environment focussed on literacy and numeracy. Sometimes sexuality lingers at the bottom of that ‘to do’ list. Some schools put a lot of effort in to the consultation, and many receive absolutely no feedback from their community.
2. What if I don’t want my child to participate in sexuality education?
There are many reasons why parents may consider withdrawing their child from the school sexuality education programme. Indeed, following the media frenzy last week over sex ed, I guess more parents will be considering this.
It’s been widely mis-reported in the media this week that parents need to sign a consent form for their children to participate in a school sexuality education programme. They don’t. Some schools choose to do this, but it is not required. Legally, every school is obliged to inform parents what the programme consists of and no contact from a parent conveys to the school that they are happy to have their child participate in sexuality education. There is provision under section 25AA of the Education Act 1989, for parents to write to the principal to request that their child be excluded from sexuality education. Note that this exclusion does not apply to other times during the school day when a teacher deals with a question raised by another student that relates to sexuality education.
3. But I don’t want my child learning about contraception!
If you feel this way, it’s important you discuss this with your Board of Trustees and Principal. If you do feel strongly about this issue you may decide to withdraw your child. However you need to know that the 1990 repeal of section 3 of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 removed all restrictions on the advice and supply of contraceptives to those under 16 years of age. Young people of any age now have the right to access information about contraception and to be supplied with contraceptive products without parental consent. In reality, this means that if your child wants information about contraceptives, the school is able to provide this, regardless of parental consent.
Part two coming up later this week. It will answer the question: "What SHOULD my child be receiving as part of a quality sexuality education programme?"
**Disclaimer – there are some schools and some teachers doing an absolutely fantastic job delivering sexuality education in New Zealand. I applaud these people. Those that are struggling with it are struggling because of a multitude of reasons, not easily addressed in a 200 word attention-grabbing newspaper article. If you are a parent and are concerned about the sexuality education in your school, I urge you to contact the Principal and your Board of Trustees to discuss your concerns.
Some people claim to have bad memories. But asked if there is one memory that sticks right there as vividly as it were yesterday, many people define it as that moment they learnt about sex. It's interesting asking adults about the moment they learnt what sex was. Everyone’s experience is so different and more often than not, it is a memory tinged with laughter and nostalgia. Unfortunately for others, it is surrounded by shame and secrecy. For me, I am lucky it is the former. And here is my story.
I grew up in the country and attended a wonderful little village school that was like an extended family. These were such happy days and the presence of media and advertising rarely penetrated. Multi-coloured king-fu shoes were about the height of fashion awareness: functional clothes ruled. We gained status from how fast we could run and how long we could reign champion at four square or padder tennis. My parents had grown up in the city and were determined to experience all manner of menagerie on our 3 acre block – chickens, donkeys, goats, sheep, calves, ducks... and we kids were witness to mating, births, deaths and even vet students castrating our pet donkey (the operation photographed in graphic detail by my Dad and placed in the family photo album). In light of this, my naivety around sex was astonishing.
When I was nine my parents casually gave me the seminal tome “Where Did I Come From?” and I duly opened the pages. The book is filled with pictures of a nude couple who bath and then hop into bed together. The text tells you that sex is a really tight hug that makes you wiggle. Then something happens that feels like a sneeze, "but much better." I was horrified. People do THAT with each other? I just couldn’t believe that this was how babies were made!. Even worse, I had a younger brother and sister, so my parents had done this THREE TIMES!
Later my parents and I sat down in the lounge to expand on the conversation. They were open and keen to chat, but I was gob-smacked: All I could express was disgust. I think my Dad found my horror amusing and possibly a bit over the top and must have attributed this to the fact that I actually knew all along what was happening. He kept telling me it was OK if I had known already – as I sat there shaking my head in horror. Dad even asked me what I thought was happening when we took our lady goats to the man goat every autumn – I replied that I just thought they loved to jump round with new goats for fun.
Not long after this discussion with my parents, the topic came up amongst my group of girlfriends at school. We had all recently found out about the ‘facts of life’, and im hushed tones we were discussing it amongst ourselves ior the first time. My main memory of this conversation was how we all agreed how awful the concept of sex was. Then one friend realised in horror: Oh but I want to have children but I could never ever ever do THAT! We all nodded in agreement, the weight of the world on our shoulders. With heavy hearts we all made a pact that we would all have to adopt. I am still in contact with many of these friends and luckily I think we have all since broken that pact!
I would love to hear your story!
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.