Sexual education needs bigger reach

Sexual infection rates high in the inner city

Although sexual and reproductive health education is mandatory in all public schools in the city, Winnipeg, and especially the inner-city, still grapples with sexual illiteracy.

A study by the Communicable Disease Control Unit (CDCU) of Manitoba Health suggests the province has the highest per capita infection rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia, particularly among youth. It also has the highest incidence of teen pregnancy.

Roselle Paulson, director of Sexual Education Resource Centre (SERC) in Winnipeg, said the problem is greatest in the inner-city.

“The inner-city especially has high STI (sexually transmitted infection) rates, and high but falling teen pregnancy rates.”

She warns these statistics could stem from the province’s small size and urban concentration. The real indicators to the questions of sexual literacy are directly tied to education, Paulson said.

“The real protective factors are in education, whether the youth have goals for future, take responsibility for their health, have an expectation to complete school or talk with family about sexual or reproductive health.”

Another problem could be a lack of professional sex instruction. Public health workers stopped teaching sex education in city schools more than 10 years ago.

“Except for immunizations, we don’t get into classrooms anymore, the curriculum has been handed over to the teachers,” said Miranda Soap, a nurse with the Community Development branch of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

“We still see the kids though, half of our clientele at the public clinic are between 16 and 18.”

Winnipeg’s inner-city falls under the Winnipeg School Division, which Paulson calls “a progressive organization.”

Except for immunizations, we don’t get into classrooms anymore.

Miranda Soap, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority

Schools could be the best place to teach sexual awareness, she said.

The Winnipeg School Division was unavailable before press time.

“Schools have it lucky—a captive audience and the support of family and communities,” Paulson said. “My real concern is for youth who have dropped out of school.”

Street youth are at highest risk of contracting STIs in Manitoba. Paulson points to the findings of the CDCU report, which calls for the institutionalization of self-esteem building and psychological assistance for street youth.

Carol Beaudoin, the author, ends the paper by saying, “protecting youth is the key to stemming the STI epidemic in Manitoba.”

The convergence between public health and the school divisions has little effect on street youth. Many youth, especially those outside of school, receive the majority of their outreach and health education from churches and inner-city missions.

Inner City Youth Alive offers ministry services in the North End and downtown. They have a number of youth programs, including Young Moms!, a retreat for teenage mothers.

Kent Dueck, a co-founder and executive director of the group, practices an ‘abstinence only’ approach in his ministry for those who volunteer or work for the organization, citing biblical reasons.

Some health care professionals remain skeptical about abstinence as the only STI prevention method.

“To each their own – that might work for some families, if the youth choose to go in that direction… but in schools, a comprehensive approach has to be taken,” Paulson said. “School curriculums are very different than a personal choice of what to teach your daughter or son.”

“After all, the majority of abstinence pledges are broken. If we haven’t given them any other information, who will?” she said.

Published in Volume 63, Number 21 of The Uniter (February 26, 2009)

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