A proposed initiative to distribute condoms to Rwandan secondary school students has divided parents, teachers and other members of society, with some cheering the plan and others concerned that teens are not mature enough to use condoms responsibly.
Local NGOs, including Health Development Initiative (HDI-Rwanda), Rwanda NGOs Forum on HIV/AIDS and Health Promotion, and Association Ihorere Munyarwanda are fronting the initiative on the grounds that young people must be protected from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.
"We developed the idea for this project following numerous secondary school students' complaints [about lack of access to condoms]," HDI Rwanda's Cassien Havugimana said during the launch of the campaign in September in the capital, Kigali. "But for effectiveness, behavioural change awareness must accompany access to the materials needed for safe sex."
In November, the campaign plans to carry out mass mobilization and awareness-raising for stakeholders including school heads, teachers and local officials. If the government gives the NGOs the go-ahead, condom distribution should start in December; the NGOs aim to reach the entire country, but will start with secondary schools in Kigali.
According to HDI-Rwanda's communications officer Christine Calouro, any distribution would be accompanied by education on abstinence as a preferred choice for young people and with additional reproductive health information.
Some secondary school officials have already expressed their vehement opposition to the idea of condoms being handed out to their students.
"I don't believe in condoms being distributed in secondary schools... It's a no go zone," Innocent Nshimiyemungu, deputy head teacher at Kigali's Lycée de Ruhengeri APICUR, told IRIN/PlusNews. "The children are, in the first place, not mature enough to know how to use condoms."
|We should emphasize postponement of sexual activity by encouraging these young people to embrace abstinence. How do I start encouraging my young girls to engage in sexual activity instead of concentrating on academics?|
"We should promote abstinence instead, and introduce condoms at a higher level - say universities and other higher institutions of learning," he added.
Edward Asiimwe, a father of two girls of secondary school age, is also against the proposal.
"To say that condoms be introduced to these young children means we have lost our sense of direction and morals," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "We should emphasize postponement of sexual activity by encouraging these young people to embrace abstinence. How do I start encouraging my young girls to engage in sexual activity instead of concentrating on their academics?"
But Jean Marie Twahiirwa, business director at the International School of Kigali, says it is important for young people to be equipped with knowledge of and access to condoms.
"We should educate these young people about condom use and avail them because either way, they engage in sexual intercourse, so the earlier we teach them the better," he said. "I don't think this will necessarily push them into early sex because emphasis will be put on the essence of sexuality so that the students understand the rightful purpose of sex and condoms."
Loretta Umukunzi*, a student at the International School of Kigali, told IRIN/PlusNews she would not object to condoms being dispensed at her school. "I think it's OK since I see girls getting pregnant and dropping out of school," she said. "As long as they teach students how to use them properly then we shall not be faced with such problems again."
According to a 2009 Behavioural Surveillance Survey, an estimated 6.1 percent of girls and 14.7 percent of boys aged 15-19 had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 15. The survey found that the percentage of comprehensive HIV knowledge among youth aged 15-19 was 9.4 percent for girls and 11 percent for boys.
Young women appear to be at higher risk of HIV, with the government reporting HIV prevalence among young women aged 15-24 at 3.9 percent, compared to 1.1 percent for young men in the same age group. The country's national prevalence is about 3 percent.
Deputy Speaker of Rwanda's parliament Jean Damascene Ntawukuliryayo has thrown his weight behind the campaign.
"I support the campaign. This will help us curb unwanted pregnancies in schools - of course not forgetting other solutions like involving parents in reproductive health education of their children and including such issues in the school curriculum," he said.
Officials at the Ministry of Health say while the distribution of condoms in secondary schools is not official government policy, the issue has been under debate for some time.
"Discussions have been ongoing between the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health and the National HIV Control Programme around the issues of the many cases of unwanted pregnancies, a clear indication that unprotected sex is real in secondary schools which could lead to the transmission of HIV," said Sabin Nsabimana, head of the HIV division at the Institute of HIV/AIDS Disease Prevention and Control at the Ministry of Health's Bio-Medical Centre.
*Not her real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions