Julie-PotyrajMost sexually transmitted diseases are preventable. That’s one reason it’s so upsetting that one in four sexually active girls in the United States has one. Out of the 19 million new STD cases annually in the U.S., almost half are among people ages 15 to 24. And those statistics only represent the number of reported cases; many more infections go undocumented. Despite the clear need for STD prevention strategies among young people, current efforts are scattered and inconsistent across the U.S. While 23 states require sex education, only 13 states require that the information be “medically accurate.” Even when sex education is taught in schools, many states require an emphasis on abstinence. But are these abstinence-only programs really helping to reduce STDs in younger generations? Simply put, no.

Comprehensive sex education, using the example of Zambia

For elementary and middle school students at Chadiza Basic School in the Eastern Province of Zambia, every day begins with a prayer. Since religion is an integral part of many aspects of daily life in Zambia, you might think that schools in this self-proclaimed Christian nation may be the last place you would expect to find comprehensive sex education. Despite the widespread religious and cultural taboos of sex education in Zambia, the prevalence of HIV and other STDs throughout the country has encouraged the Ministry of Health to open up the dialogue about safe sex.

Middle schoolers are a difficult audience, especially when talking about STDs. For many years, abstinence was the only prevention method taught in schools. However, HIV and STDs among school-aged boys and girls persisted. Sex education was becoming a matter of life and death. According to Brian Mubita, a school teacher in Zambia, “Comprehensive sexuality education comes in to help close the information gap. Learners are able to receive the right information that will equip them and give them the skills and knowledge to know who they are and how they should keep themselves safe.”

UNAids reported that approximately 100,000 children up to age 14 in Zambia are living with HIV. Young girls are especially vulnerable: In 2012, UNICEF estimated that three young people in Zambia become infected with HIV every hour — two out of the three being girls. When faced with such staggering statistics, Zambia’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education realized that despite social misgivings about sex education for school children, action needed to be taken to ensure a safe future for Zambia’s youth.

So, how is it that a developing country began to embrace comprehensive sex education at a national level, but a supposedly advanced nation like the U.S. has not? Though the U.S. and Zambia may be worlds apart in certain aspect, their youth are facing the same threats to their sexual health. American girls, like their Zambian counterparts, are extremely vulnerable to STDs as a result of risky sexual behavior. People in the U.S. ages 13 to 24 account for almost one in four new HIV cases. And though the U.S. encourages HIV and STD prevention abroad, it still falls short in domestic efforts.

If condoms work there, then why not here?

More than 10 years ago, The United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, more commonly referred to as PEPFAR, began working with nations across the world to help combat HIV and AIDS. Though many programs focus on providing treatment for people living with the disease, there is also a strong emphasis on prevention. HIV prevention strategies include three main components: abstinence, being faithful, and condoms. Though abstinence is the only 100 percent effective approach, it is frequently an unrealistic and unsustainable strategy. USAID and PEPFAR both emphasize the importance of correct and consistent condom use. PEPFAR focuses on condom education programs, while USAID works in PEPFAR countries to “make condoms available to poor or vulnerable individuals.” Together, these programs are seeing real results.

What is the reason behind this double standard? Why are U.S.-government-funded programs able to emphasize comprehensive sex education, including condom use, abroad, but only 20 states within the U.S. are required to provide information on condoms when HIV education is taught?

Most Zambian and American youth may lead different lives. But HIV and other STDs are not limited to a nationality. All children deserve a healthy future. It’s time to start getting more realistic about helping them have one.


Julie Potyraj spent several years working with youth empowerment, including sexual and reproductive health education, in rural Zambia. Currently, she is the community manager for MHA@GW and MPH@GW, both offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. She is also an MPH@GW student

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