In a drastic measure to combat sexually transmitted infections, the South African government in July launched a programme giving primary school children as young as 10 years old access to condoms.

Gazetted in May this year and implemented by the department of basic education, the policy will introduce mandatory sex education from primary school to high school. Students between classes 7 and 12 will be offered access to contraceptives. Younger children between classes 4 and 6 will be given condoms “where required”.

While the department of health has strongly supported the policy, it faced stiff opposition from the department of education before being implemented.

South Africa, with a population of more than 54 million, recorded some 94,000 unplanned teen pregnancies in schools last year, of which 77,000 ended in abortions. In addition, one in every 11 people is infected with HIV.

Teenage pregnancies have been characterised as a social crisis in South Africa, with 18% of all students either getting pregnant or making someone pregnant each year, according to the human sciences research council of the World Bank. In response to a parliamentary query, the education department stated that nearly 20,000 primary and secondary school children were pregnant in 2014.

The country’s Basic Education National Policy on HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infections and Tuberculosis is a response to the increasing number of teenage pregnancy in schools.

The South African policy is one of the most liberal sex education policies in the world. “Our policy is that we send nurses to schools to screen kids for STDs, oral hygiene; screen for immunisations; give them lessons about alcohol and drugs; and encourage them to understand reproductive health; and also provide HIV counselling,” explained Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s health minister. “If during that process, the nurses see that some children are sexually active, then they must offer them condoms. We are not saying give condoms to all school children. We are saying let’s identify who is in trouble, who is at risk and then help those children. As far as condoms are concerned, we are not advocating a situation where you go to school, line up kids, and start handing out condoms.”

Speaking about the protests from parents, the health minister stated that, “conservatism is falling behind in South Africa. Conservative groups and religious groups can no longer ignore the reality, which is that HIV is pandemic, and that teenage pregnancies and abortions have been on the rise. These factors have made such groups realise that they can no longer oppose measures.”

Stark contrast with India

The policy stands in stark contrast to the debate around sex education in India. According to the 2013 United Nations report titled ‘Motherhood in Childhood’, nearly 70,000 teenage girls in developing countries die annually due to complications in pregnancy and child birth. The same report found that, for every 1,000 teenage girls in India, 76 get pregnant between the ages of 15 and 19.

“We have not even come to terms with a basic issue like sex education so how can we talk about addressing the risks faced by young people. We have not recognised their vulnerability, so how can we admit to the risk they are facing despite reports of the growing incidence of sexual abuse of children, [and them] being forced into marriage,” said Akhil Sivadas, director, Centre for Advocacy and Research in New Delhi.

Despite worrying statistics, the Indian government has approached the subject of sex education conservatively. In fact, previous health minister, Harsh Vardhan, himself a doctor, had suggested a complete ban on sex education in Indian schools.

The World Health Organization recommends that sex education should be imparted to children who are 12 years and above, particularly in India, where 34 per cent of HIV-infected patients come from the age group of 12 to 19 years.

In 2006, the Indian government had launched the Adolescent Education Programme with UNICEF and the National AIDS Control Organisation, but it was scrapped within a year, because of protests from religious leaders and parents.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Dinanath Batra's first reaction to South Africa’s sex education policy was a slow, “Oh My God.”

After composing himself, he launched into a serious attack on the policy, stating that, “such a programme will never be introduced in India. We will not allow it. In 2008, when the government wanted to introduce sex education in school, we opposed it and made sure that it dropped the idea. Why should we teach our children these things? When you say the word sex, bad images come to mind and at that young age children need guidance and character-building, not condoms.”

Batra sees no merit in the argument for teaching children safe sex practices. “It is a conspiracy that condoms can stop AIDS and that so many Indians have AIDS. It’s just a way for people to make money from international funders. When we give children good values, why would they indulge in behaviour that leads to AIDS? Once you start giving out condoms in schools, there will be endless problems, more pregnancies, and a complete loss of culture,” he said.

India and South Africa face a similar set of challenges when it comes to expanding health programmes within budgetary constraints. This is the first part in a series that attempts to draw parallels between the health systems of the two countries. Read the other stories here.

Reporting for the series is supported by a grant from the International Reporting Project.