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Press Releases

26 Aug 2011

Children’s knowledge of sexuality: Finding new directions

Dimakatso Mokwena
Press Release

South Africa fact sheet:

Zambia fact sheet:

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA – Children and young people continue to lack accurate and comprehensive knowledge of HIV and how to avoid sexual transmission of HIV. The silence around sexuality in general and children’s sexuality in particular generates misconceptions, myths and misinformation which contribute to children and adolescents risky sexual practices.

Save the Children, the world’s largest independent child rights organisation, commissioned the HSRC to undertake pioneering research to examine attitudes, practices and knowledge of sexuality, gender, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and HIV amongst children between the age of 5-17.  

The study showed that children between 5 – 11 years old have very limited knowledge of their own sexuality, reproduction or their sexual and reproductive health.   The age group 12 – 17 had higher levels of knowledge but it was still not comprehensive. This is significant because according to the research the average age of sexual debut for both boys and girls was between 14 and 15 years and most parents were unaware that their children were sexually active.  The study found that for 12-17 year olds schools and peers are the main sources of information on sexuality and reproductive health with only 12% of parents or guardians having discussed issues of sex and HIV and AIDS with their children.

Both boys and girls in the ages 5-11 reported that they turned to their parents for information but the study indicates that the primary focus of the parents’ communication was on protecting children from sexual abuse from strangers and less about how to protect themselves from HIV transmission. This is important because the age group which has the highest proportion of adult HIV prevalence at 50.56% are children and young people 15-24 years and of the estimated 5.6 million South Africans living with HIV 330,000 are children under 15 years. Children and adolescents are not adequately informed and educated about sexuality and how to avoid HIV transmission specifically and HIV prevention in general.

Parents and other adults in children’s lives need to start talking openly to children from as young as 5 years about their sexuality as part of positive and healthy relationships.  The information we give them must be consistent with their age e.g. for very young children we talk more about  their  bodies and how their bodies work,how infections are transmitted as well as meanings of ‘body rights’, tolerance and respect and healthy relationships within and outside of their families.

We recognise that this is a difficult subject to talk about but failing to do so puts children at risk as children are less prepared to make the right choices when they need to.

We would also encourage the government to develop a range of programmes with civil society, schools and public health service providers to ensure that both parents and children receive the knowledge, skills and support they need. We are calling for an amendment of the basic education curriculum to include accurate and comprehensive sexuality information and teachers must be trained and supported to  to deliver it. We also call for action to address the social norms and negative attitudes that hinder parents and adults providing comprehensive sexuality information to children.

Save the Children seeks to improve the lives of children by promoting comprehensive sexuality information and education that would improve children’s access to information and services relating to SRH and HIV prevention.

    •    The presentation from the launch is available for download:

For more information on the study, contact Velephi Riba at velephir@saf.savethechildren.se  and Arvin Bhana at ABhana@hsrc.ac.za.