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12 February, 2013 - 11:39

Rwanda debates: should condoms be distributed at schools?

Rwanda debates: should condoms be distributed at schools?  data/files/condomafp_01.jpg

The condom distribution debate rages in Rwanda. While the government and religious groups oppose the idea of distributing birth control at school, some young Rwandans see this as a real means for preventing underage pregnancies and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

By Clive Muhenga, Kigali

 
Although it’s engaged in a massive campaign to promote the use of condoms, the Rwandan government is still reluctant to distribute them in schools.
 
According to health minister Agnès Binagwabo: “As the government, our position is to encourage reproductive health education in our high schools in order to raise awareness among our youth on the dangers of underage sex, not to distribute condoms.”

 
Giving the go-ahead?

“Sex predators have no scruples,” says Alphonse Bashima, a reproductive health teacher in the rural Burera district in Rwanda’s Northern Province. “They often prey on young girls in primary school, who then drop out after falling pregnant.”
 
He adds: “And these unwanted pregnancies are not the only danger, as the HIV virus is also transmitted through sex.”

 
A devout Christian himself, Bashima outright condemns the use of condoms, even as a means to prevent the spread of HIV in both primary and high schools. “It will amount to giving our children the go-ahead. It will incite sexual depravation even in those children not yet thinking about sex,” he says.
 
Instead, Bashima promotes solid, widespread awareness campaigns in schools that do not mention the word “condom” in front of the students.

 
Not the solution

The very idea of distributing condoms in schools is nauseating to various religious, not least devout members of the Catholic Church. Among all religious institutions in Rwanda, the Catholic Church, which is present in all sectors of civic life, has the greatest number of primary and secondary schools.
 
“The condom is not the solution to the problems that our youth face. On the contrary, it would make them worse,” the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Rwanda, Smaragde Mbonyintege, writes in a communiqué.
 
“Are our children to blame for extramarital sex, drugs and AIDS, or are we?” he asks. According to the clergyman, parents, educators and students should meet every year to discuss the type of education appropriate for their children – but without mentioning the condom.

 
“Taboo must be lifted”

Fellow teacher Germain Manirafasha, from Ruhengeri, disagrees. “I think we should stop burying our heads in the sand. It’s not a secret that some of our children here in the city start having sex at a very young age: 11, sometimes even 10,” he says.
 
“Is it because their parents and teachers do not tell them about the dangers they’re exposing themselves to?” he asks rhetorically. “Catholics preachers, priests and imams have all been preaching about it for years, but nothing has changed. And every passing day brings even more temptations that make our children fall into such traps,” the teacher says.
 
Manirafasha believes “the taboo must be lifted”. He recommends that people speak openly to schoolchildren about condoms as a method to prevent HIV. He insists, however, that condoms be recommended as a last resort, in cases when lust trumps logic.

 
Raising awareness

Social worker Mathilde Mukandayambaje is sceptical. “But are we certain that these young people know how to use a condom correctly? Don’t we see some children play around with condoms like toys, filling them with water or inflating them as balloons?” she asks.
 
“All the more reason for further education on condom use,” replies Dynaroo Tandimwebwa, a student in agronomy.
 
Those who think like Tandimwebwa are few and far between. “Some of our high school children have sexual relations with their classmates or teachers,” he points out. “If we want to build a healthy generation of Rwandans, capable of working towards the country’s development, condoms should be made available in schools,” the student reasons.