By Daniela Ellerbeck, Legal Advisor to FOR SA

Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) recently again met with the Department of Basic Education (the DBE) to discuss various questions and concerns regarding the proposed implementation of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in South African schools.

CSE has been in the spotlight following a recent article in the Sunday Times entitled “Grade 4s to learn about masturbation in new life orientation curriculum”. Quoting sex therapist Dr Marlene Wasserman (“Dr Eve”), the article stated that “from next year, textbooks for pupils in grades 4 to 12 will reflect a ‘cutting edge’ curriculum approach that treats masturbation, sexual consent, gender nonconformity and single-parent families as mainstream”.

The article resulted in a massive public outcry from parents and protest from the teachers’ union SAUO, who said that they had not been consulted in this regard. The DBE subsequently distanced itself from this media report, but did confirm that it is busy reviewing the Life Skills (primary schools) and Life Orientation (high school) curricula to include CSE components.

The purpose of FOR SA’s meeting with the DBE was to obtain clarity on the content that learners will be exposed to, and in particular also to discuss the rights of parents who do not want their children to be exposed to content that conflict with their own moral values and beliefs regarding human sexuality. It was a constructive meeting that assisted in answering some of our questions, and brought a level of comfort – although it remains critically important to keep monitoring and engaging with the issue.

According to the DBE, scripted lesson plans had been presented to School Governing Bodies (SGBs) federations for consideration. Realising however that two major stakeholders (namely parents and teachers) had not been consulted, the DBE will now engage in a consultation process to make sure their input is received and considered before finalising the curricula.  The DBE indicated that while the proposed new curriculum is currently being piloted in several provinces, realistically, they were looking at roll-out in all schools in 2021 only.

The curriculum content

During our meeting, the DBE again explained that the review process started due to the existing curriculum having minimum impact on lowering HIV infections and teenage pregnancies, and teachers needing guidance as the DBE had received complaints about teachers exposing children to age-inappropriate content.

As a result, the DBE looked at how to strengthen the topics already covered by the CAPS curriculum – with a focus on human rights, and the prevention of HIV and learner pregnancies. To put it into context, the DBE explained that Life Skills / Orientation is allocated only two hours of lesson time per week, covering a range of issues including sexuality education, sport, art, nutrition, religion, etc. 

A parallel process of textbooks (for learners) and scripted lesson plans (for teachers), written by curriculum specialists, was undertaken. At present, the scripted lesson plans for grades 4 to 12 are finalised, but the textbooks are still being written and are not even in their first draft yet. The DBE emphatically stated that Dr Eve (quoted in the Sunday Times article) is not a curriculum specialist and was not part of the writing team.

While the grade 4 scripted lesson plans do not mention masturbation, the grade 7 scripted lesson plans (which FOR SA had sight of during our meeting with the DBE) does define masturbation as the act of touching oneself for sexual pleasure, and further comments that “masturbation is normal and will not hurt you”. In this regard, FOR SA pointed out to the DBE that there is a difference between factual statements (e.g. explaining what masturbation is), and value-laden statements (e.g. saying that masturbation is “normal”). Unlike subjects like maths or science that is value-neutral, sexuality education is infused with value judgments and should for that reason ideally remain the right and prerogative of parents, who have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and education of their children including their sexual education.

FOR SA specifically asked the DBE regarding the rights of parents who do not believe it in the best interest of their children to be exposed to the proposed content, e.g. would it be possible for them to “opt out” of a particular lesson, or to privately teach their child an alternative curriculum? The DBE undertook to consult with their legal department in this regard.

The way forward

On all occasions when FOR SA has met with the DBE with regard to CSE, we have found them to be very open to and appreciative of our input. In particular, the Department has undertaken to include FOR SA in the stakeholder meeting that is planned for July 2019.

Many parents have asked us how they can become involved to raise their concerns, and make sure that their voice is heard. In this regard, FOR SA recommends that concerned parents mandate their SGB to:

  1. Ask the DBE to be included in stakeholders’ meetings where they can give input on the textbook content etc.;
  2. Ask that the content of the scripted lesson plans be disclosed to them; and
  3. Ask that parents who, on grounds of their religious or moral convictions and beliefs, do not believe it in the best interest of their children to be exposed to particular content, be given the option to opt their child out of a specific lesson, or to teach them an alternative sex-education curriculum that the child can be examined on.
Daniela is a duly qualified Attorney of the High Court of South Africa. She obtained a BCom LLB degree from Rhodes University. Daniela first worked for Médecins sans Frontières before completing her articles of clerkship at G van Zyl Attorneys, where she stayed on after being admitted as an attorney and practised, specialising in litigation. Daniela has loved Jesus since she was young and is a member of a local church in Cape Town where she is actively involved.

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