Speaking at an HIV forum at Knutsford Court Hotel in St Andrew on Monday, Dr Chevannes-Vogel came out in full support of Comprehensive Sexuality Education, which has come under recent scrutiny after concerns were raised about the infiltration of the philosophy into the education system.
Dr Chevannes-Vogel called for “frank conversations” which, evidenced by the loud applause, got the nod from the audience.
In May, Education Minister Ruel Reid met with representatives of the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society to hear their concerns and made it clear that the education ministry’s philosophical position is that gender is fixed as male and female.
He said then that a recent review of the approved books used with the Health and Family Life Education curriculum indicate that their contents are in conformity with Jamaica’s philosophical position on sexuality and gender.
However, this is not the first time sex-education material has provoked the ire of the public. Related content had come under scrutiny in 2012 after an uproar about some parts of the Health and Family Life Education curriculum encouraging homosexuality. It was withdrawn and revised to be more sensitive to Jamaica’s traditional beliefs and practices.
Though the forum — which was held under the theme ‘Health for All: Putting Youth and Adolescents at the Heart of the HIV Response’ — sought to raise awareness about adolescent and youth-specific issues in the response to HIV and AIDS, Dr Chevannes-Vogel moved to broaden the theme to put youth at the centre of a comprehensive sexual reproductive health response and sustainable national development.
“When we look at the correlation between good, optimum, sexual reproductive health and sustainable national development, the linkage is clear,” she stated. “And as a matter of fact, that was part of the basis of the integration of HIV and sexual reproductive health; they share common drivers — the gender inequalities, the cultural attitudes, the poverty, the unemployment, gender-based violence, sexual violence, incest.”
The National Family Planning Board is the lead agency for the HIV response after the Government merged some aspects of the National HIV Programme with the family and population planning programmes of the NFPB.
In addition to the common drivers, Dr Chevannes-Vogel pointed out that adolescent pregnancy is very high in Jamaica.
“We have the unenviable reputation of being fourth-ranked in the Caribbean region with an adolescent fertility rate, age-specific fertility rate, of 72 per 1,000 girls age 15-19. This compares to the Caribbean average of 65 and the global average of 49,” Dr Chevannes-Vogel shared, while admitting that the data is a bit outdated but provides an indicative figure.
She insisted that, in terms of sustainable development, Jamaica will not get very far unless there is a “comprehensive approach” looking at sexual and reproductive health, in addition to HIV.
“I think we need to recognise what it (Comprehensive Sexuality Education) is and what it is not. It is not sexualising young people and adolescents,” she insisted.
“What it is, is providing, in an age-appropriate, context-specific way, information that users and adolescents need to protect their sexual reproductive health.
“By telling adolescents and young people the kind of information [they need, it] doesn’t make anyone have sex.
“If they are not already sexually active, giving them the information is not going to drive them into sex,” she stated.
Dr Chevannes-Vogel said irrespective of the name given, whether it is Comprehensive Sexuality Education, Comprehensive Sexual Health Education, or Human Sexuality Education, what happens is having that “frank conversation” to help to empower young people.
She also pointed out that sexual education must be gender-specific and must also take into account how society drives sexual health behaviours for boys and girls.
“For boys, you have to have ‘nuff gyal inna bundle’. You cannot be thought to be gay,” she explained. “For girls, the notion [is] that you need a man to validate who you are; the notion [is] that if you haven’t had a child by the time you are a certain age, you are a mule.
“All of these are the cultural attitudes that we also have to empower our young people against,” she said, while reiterating the NFPB’s support for the ‘Health For All’ initiative.