A way to tackle teenage pregnancy in Lewisham is to teach young boys and girls abstinence education along side sex and relationship education from an early age. This is the view expressed by Darna Sepaul, Manager of Woodpecker Youth Centre in Lewisham who will help run the ‘Say NO to Teen Pregnancy’ workshops starting next month, in an attempt to reduce the high number of teenage pregnancies in the east London borough.
Abstinence-only education is highly controversial. The idea that children should be taught to abstain from sex until marriage is widely criticised in the UK, as there is currently no research to confirm that teaching abstinence-only based sex education in school can reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy.
The approach has been tested in the US, with disastrous results. According to a study from the University of Georgia, teaching abstinence-only education does not reduce teenage pregnancy rates. The study showed however, States that taught abstinence-only education had higher rates of teen pregnancies, compared to States that taught comprehensive sex education – implying that even when taught not to have sex, teenagers still did.
Yet the workshop in Lewisham is not teaching abstinence-only education, but incorporating the choice for young girls and boys to abstain from sex until a later age as a way to reduce the high number of teen pregnancies in the borough. This approach is also taught in many schools across the UK during SRE lessons, but teaching abstinence as a choice is one that has not been made a statutory requirement.
Lewisham had the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Inner London in 2009, with 235 under 18 conceptions – according to the latest and most up-to-date statistics provided by the Office for National Statistics.
For Darna Sepaul, “Abstinence education should be taught as a starting point. It teaches [young people] self-assurance, self-esteem, and to have pride in one’s self.”
Sepaul emphasises that abstinence education should not be limited to a select group of children, but be brought into lessons for 11-12 year olds in all schools, for both girls and boys.
It is important for abstinence education to be taught around “appropriateness”, and not used to “promote an age” of when is satisfactory to have sex, she said. Group discussions should be used to “give them the opportunity to work it out for themselves”.
The youth centre’s ‘Say NO to Teen Pregnancy’ workshop will teach 12 children aged 10-19 for 12 weeks, starting February 15. Children who have been approach by Outreach workers, and Keeping it Real organisation in schools in New Cross will join the classes, as part of a self-referral project. If successful, a further two workshops will be held, offering over 35 children free sex and relationship education. The first workshop will be held just for girls, the second for boys, and the third will be jointly run.
Sarah Molomey, a social worker who works for Keeping it Real organisation, a team of three professionals: a teacher, advice and guidance project worker, and social worker offering sex and relationship guidance to young women, will be teaching the workshop. The program ran successfully in Bellingham, Lewisham, and is supported and encouraged by many parents in the New Cross area. Abstinence is a topic many parents “want us to flag up and make [young people] aware that they have choices”, Molomey states.
Although Rebecca Findlay, Campaigns Manager for the Family Planning Association states that teaching children they do not need to have sex is part of good SRE education taught in schools, Molomey’s experiences in working with young people has led her to believe that many teenagers are just not aware of this option:
“We have seen a lot of young women, and it wouldn’t even cross their minds that it was a choice. I mean some of the 14 and 15 year olds who we have worked with previously don’t even recognise that as one of their choices.”
This lack of knowledge on the choice to abstain from sex, questions how successful SRE classes are in school in making teenagers aware of their options.
Separate workshops offer something unique to schools, says Molomey, allowing teenagers to talk on a one-to-one basis, ask questions they feel would not be able to ask in school, without feeling intimidated by male pupils around them. This extra time, she believes, could really make a difference to many young people.
Although this holistic approach to teaching teenagers about their choices offers young people more guidance on sex and relationship issues, according to Owen Thomas, who runs Lewisham’s Young Fathers Project, which supports young fathers by offering parenting skills and sex and relationship education, the teaching of abstinence will never be truly effective so long as sex remains commercialised and glamorised by society.
“There is no point teaching abstinence while we allow rampant consumerism. We must think how teenagers view sex in society – they see it on TV as a highly rated thing they can do in society. Sex is at the top of their agenda. If the government wants to try and tackle that, they need to look at what is society’s view on sex,” he states.