17-year-old girl is campaigning for sex education to become part of the curriculum in the Cayman Islands.
The local chapter of the Red Cross has backed a petition from Madeleine Rowell calling for a consistent, age-appropriate programme of sex education in the islands’ schools.
Ms Rowell said she believes the “abstinence only” message being preached in some schools is a good one, but is unrealistic for all teenagers.
She said she believes condoms and other forms of contraception should also be available to young people, over the age of consent, through their schools, in an effort to cut teen pregnancies.
The online petition, which will be delivered to Health Minister Osbourne Bodden and Education Minister Tara Rivers, states: “Currently, no school in the Cayman Islands delivers a consistent, age appropriate comprehensive sexual education curriculum which is aimed at empowering youth with knowledge, skills and information equipping them to make responsible choices throughout their lives.
“Over the past 10 years, the Cayman Islands Red Cross has been working to offer such information to youth via its comprehensive Peer Education Programme, yet even this – which started off as a part of the Year 11 life skills curriculum at the public high school – has been reduced to a couple of activities throughout the school year.
“Outside of the classroom, access to this information, skills, testing, and contraception aimed at reducing the risks of contracting a STI [sexually transmitted infection] or becoming pregnant is also extremely limited, and that which is available is most likely restricted to those students in the public high schools.”
Ms Rowell, who currently goes to school in New Mexico in the US, said she was surprised at the difference in the comprehensive sex education curriculum at her school compared with what her peers were taught in Cayman.
“At my school and at others in the US they give out contraception, so that if teenagers choose to have sex, they can do so safely. The age of consent is 16.”
She said teenagers were often embarrassed to buy condoms and that could lead them to make bad decisions or have unprotected sex.
She insists she is not encouraging young people to have sex but said she believes they should have the information to make decisions based on their own values.
She said she believes sex is almost a “taboo” subject in Cayman’s conservative Christian society and that stigma needs to be removed so that young people have accurate information, even if they do decide to wait until after marriage to have sex.
Carolina Ferreira, deputy director of the Cayman Islands Red Cross, said comprehensive sex education programmes had been proven to delay the start of sexual activities and reduce the risk of teen pregnancy and contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
In the Netherlands, she said, age-appropriate sex education was part of the curriculum for every year group. In that country, the average age of “sexual initiation” is 19, compared with 12-14 in the southern states of the US that teach “abstinence only”.
“We need to make sure we talk to young people and give them the information they need,” she said. “If you are having sex, there are going to be consequences, you may get pregnant, you may have an orgasm. We need to be honest and tell them about the good, the bad and the ugly and have them decide for themselves.
“We feel we can just tell young people what to do and they will somehow adhere to our directive when they are living, breathing human beings. We need to teach them to think for themselves.”
Around 50 babies are born each year in the Cayman Islands to girls ages 15 to 19.
Compared to other developed, industrialised nations this figure, which translates to around 6 per cent of all live births, is high. As this does not account for miscarriages or terminations, the number of teenagers becoming pregnant could well be higher.