“Girls need to behave like girls you know”: the complexities of applying a gender justice goal within sexuality education in South African schools
Catriona, Ida Macleod
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Sexuality education, as a component within the Life Orientation (LO) programme in South African schools, is intended to provide young people with knowledge and skills to make informed choices about their sexuality, their own health and that of others. Key to the programme are outcomes relating to power, power relations and gender. In this paper, we apply a critical gender lens to explore the ways in which the teaching of sexuality education engages with larger goals of gender justice. The paper draws from a number of ethnographic studies conducted at 12 South African schools. We focus here on the data collected from focus group discussions with learners, and semi-structured interviews with individual learners, principals and Life Orientation (LO) teachers. The paper highlights the complexities of having gender justice as a central goal of LO sexuality education. Teaching sexuality education is reported to contradict dominant community values and norms. Although some principals and school authorities support gender equity and problematize hegemonic masculinities, learners experience sexuality education as upholding normative gender roles and male power, rather than challenging it. Teachers rely heavily on cautionary messages that put more responsibility for reproductive health on female learners, and use didactic, authoritative pedagogical techniques, which do not acknowledge young people’s experience nor facilitate their sexual agency. These complexities need to be foregrounded and worked with systematically if the goal of gender justice within LO is to be realised.