A conference convened by the National Ministry of Education this week in Midrand is grappling with its ambitious goal of formulating resolutions on the kind of sexuality education to be included in the school curriculum.

Under the banner “Protecting the Right To Innocence” teachers, policy makers and academics have gathered to thrash out just what sexuality is, what it means to protect innocence and how to combat HIV infection in schools where an estimated 15 to 20% of school pupils are already infected.

Constitutional Judge Kate O’Regan addressed the gala diner opening of the conference saying that two simple challenges faced South African educators: “Learners need to be informed about sexuality so the choices they make are wise choices; and they need to be empowered personally so that in complex inter-personal relationships they make a wise choice and stick with it.”

She said that in the past, protecting the right to innocence had been confused with protecting ignorance and that for many people silence on the topic was the easiest way out.

“Facing a group of rambunctious and rebellious teenagers and talking to them about sexuality, about condoms, about penises and vaginas, about orgasms and sexually transmitted diseases is no easy task,” said O’Regan.

This became apparent on the first day of the conference as breakaway groups made little headway, battling with the terms of their task and the stark reality that many lessons on sexuality in schools are of a more practical nature, with many male teachers abusing their positions.

Even if a curriculum-based approach to sexuality education is introduced, it will take many years before it is implemented and in many schools there is simply not the capacity or the will, to make it work.

Now going into its second and last day, the conference will have to answer many questions: How will educators empower the girl child – most vulnerable to HIV infection? How will the Education Department get teachers and parents to buy into the process? When will sexuality education begin, at pre-school, primary or high school level? How will teachers be supported and trained, and will such education be made compulsory, regardless of moral or religious objection?

Mark Heywood, director of the Aids Law Project, said that HIV/AIDS was forcing a rethink on how education was delivered and that the constitution actively supports sexuality education, while giving no support to those who object to it.

Even so, the conference has a long way to go if it is to come up with a framework for comprehensive sexuality education envisaged by Education Minister Kader Asmal as one which: “involves creating a climate in schools where pupils wil be free from abuse, where teachers will be living examples of the values enshrined in the curriculum.”