In most traditional African societies, sexual and reproductive health topics are seldom discussed in family settings. Openly speaking about sexuality and sexual relationships is considered a taboo in many cultures. As a result, several nuclear family members never have conversations around these topics and as such, only those considered to be ready for marriage are given advice on how they are expected to conduct themselves in their marriages.
In the contemporary setting, more often than not, people learn about sexual and reproductive health by virtue of being engaged in relationships with the opposite sex, through peers, public health educators, and friends and to a lesser extent, relatives. Subsequently, the content, form, variety and (in) accuracy of sexual and reproductive health information have grown with the burgeoning of different information platforms across traditional and new media.
Realities of the adolescence phase
During adolescence, individuals go through a phase of exploration and transformation that revolves around their physical and emotional states. During this time, adolescents start making decisions regarding their lives, including engaging in sexual activity. At this stage, they are likely to experiment with sex including unprotected sex, that puts them at risk of unwanted pregnancies and/or contracting sexually transmitted infections. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) unprotected sex is listed among the behaviors that endanger the health of adolescents, both presently and in their future.
With the growing demand from adolescents on sexual and reproductive health and rights information, it is imperative that what they receive is not only comprehensive but accurate. In order to bridge the existing information gap, there is a need to actively avail as many trusted channels, including those at home. As the popular saying goes, ‘charity begins at home’, and both parents and caregivers need to begin the process at the earliest opportunity possible.
Why parents/caregivers need to get involved in sexuality education for their adolescents
The plethora of unfiltered sexuality information, as well as associated health risks, means that parents/guardians should not delegate the responsibility of sexuality health education to peers, and service providers alone. A study conducted in Namibia showed that parental participation in the provision of sexuality education to children is important since the parents play the biggest role in terms of socialization. However, parental participation is influenced by adequacies in sexuality information, cultural practices, attitudes towards sexuality education and parent-child relationships. Where barriers exist, chances of any meaningful contribution to preventing risky sexual behaviors among adolescents are considerably minimized.
Bridging the gap between parents and adolescent communication
According to the Kenya HIV Estimates report 2018, the overall HIV prevalence among adolescents aged 15-24 is 1.98% (Males 1.34%, Females 2.61%). In urban areas, adolescent girls and young women living in the slums are at higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections including HIV due to their socioeconomic circumstances. Based on this understanding, information and behavior change interventions have taken center stage in HIV prevention programming. One such program is the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) partnership which offers a package of interventions for the young women aged 10 to 24, encompassing a holistic approach to HIV prevention.
The program is being implemented in 10 countries in Africa, including Kenya. As part of the package to strengthen families, the program has a parent/caregiver component to enhance sexual and reproductive health communication between the children and caregivers. In Kenya, the intervention has attracted over 1000 parents and caregivers, to participate in the lessons and activities, a clear indicator there is an acknowledgment of the importance of developing effective communication with their children.
Families Matter intervention, a package within DREAMS aims to strengthen the ability of parents and caregivers to engage their children in discussions on how they can achieve their goals in life, solidify the relationship between the parent and the child and most importantly, provide sexuality education to the children. Communication strengthening in this aspect serves to ensure that the parent-child relationship is vibrant and the discussions around sexuality and sexual risk reduction, life skills, and HIV are discussed effectively and understood by the children. Parents are actively involved in the intervention, embracing the lessons and putting what they are learning into practice.
Building parent-child relationships to create an environment to enhance positive communication regarding sexuality among adolescents is important. Though faced by sustainability challenges, community programs are providing platforms to cultivate such initiatives. With society changing rapidly and some cultural norms fading away, it is prudent that parents and caregivers provide their children with information on life skills, including sexuality. This will build the children’s awareness of sexuality issues and decision making which often has life-long impacts, for example staying in school and human capital development. Promoting safe and healthy sexual behaviors among children translates to protecting their future and thus should be embraced within the family setting. As a society, the effort to involve parents/caregivers in sexuality education should become a social routine at the family level.