Media must set the tone on sexual health conversations, push for Comprehensive Sexuality Education in schools

Kenya's implementation of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in schools has remained a subject of debate among religious groups, activists, and parents who opt for cultural beliefs instead.

Senator Judith Sijenyi proposed a reproductive health care Bill in Parliament in 2014, seeking to constitutionalise the right of adolescents to confidential, comprehensive, non-judgmental and affordable sexuality education and reproductive health care services.

The Bill was withdrawn as a battle arose between the state, culture and religion; stating that CSE is unacceptable at home or in school, especially when it addresses issues pertaining to sex outside of marriage, while others argued that addressing issues of sex among the members of various religions is prohibited.

The same applies to other religious, cultural, and activist groups, who sought various avenues of communication, mostly social media, to run drives like signing petitions against the Bill.

The re-introduction of the Reproductive Healthcare Bill in 2019 by Senator Susan Kihika gave Parliament and Kenyans an opportunity to bring life to article 43(1)(a) of the Constitution that guarantees the right to access the highest attainable standard of health including reproductive health care.

However, the Bill was rejected by the state because it sought to make CSE legal through its Article 27, seeking to make available abortion services that cater for adolescents on demand contrary to the Constitution and the values of the country.

CSE has remained an issue under debate in various forums. Religious and cultural leaders misunderstood the bill, igniting debate and falsely accusing policymakers of encouraging early sex among adolescents.

Studies show that children start engaging in sex at the age of 9 and, therefore, preaching abstinence is not sustainable. These groups and parents need to be equipped with CSE curriculum content; case in point sexual intimacy, which encompasses consensual sex and its implications. Hence need for these groups to have proper information to empower young people to be cognizant of their sexual rights to protect their health, well-being and dignity. Therefore, the sexually abused would know where to report an incident, and the sexually active would take responsibility for their own and other people's sexual health and well-being by engaging in safe, healthy sex by protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

Following these concerns, the media, an important agent of social change, shapes the agenda and forms public opinion hence its role is critical in contributing to the existing CSE debates in Kenya.

The media should highlight the global and national benefits of CSE to the health and well-being of the youth to trigger conversations that are likely to give proper information and knowledge. I reflect on news stories on CSE as framed and disseminated by the media in Kenya; Media framing focuses on how news media coverage shapes public opinion; given the power of the media in setting the public agenda, then, how media frame certain topics and events directly affects how we know what we know about the world around us.

Case in point, influencing opinion and policy change on adolescent sexuality.

I argue that the yet-to-be-implemented sexual and reproductive health bill is good for Kenya because CSE, a component of the proposed bill forms an integral part of adolescents' well-being.

Knowledge of CSE will equip adolescents with knowledge of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), intimacy, contraception and sexually transmitted infections. Religious and cultural concerns have, however, interpreted sexual intimacy as being a topic where children would be taught about having sex, which is not correct.

The writer is a lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the Technical University of Kenya.

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