South Africa is a transforming and democratic society, within which young people need to understand that personal and individual needs have to be placed in a social context, and be encouraged to accept diversity, non-discrimination, and to develop a commitment to the processes of democracy and to the values and principals espoused in the Constitution. Before South Africa became a constitutional democracy in 1994, the natural rights of people were not protected. While South Africa has made great strides in this area, many individuals and communities still lack an understanding of their rights and how to access them, which results in innumerable human rights violations such as gender-based violence, child abuse and murder.

While the South African Constitution and its Bill of Rights highlight the fact that all people are equal regardless of gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, sexual orientation, or age, the country still has extremely high rates of inequality, discrimination against, and subjugation of women and other minorities, and incidence of gender- and minority-based violence. An additional burden is that in Southern Africa more than two-thirds of all young people living with HIV are girls and women. Similarly while male children, youth and adults are the more violent and sexually aggressive and the most likely perpetrators of abuse, isolating boys, blaming them, and destroying their self-esteem serves only to exacerbate the problems. Males and females need to be targeted equally, to assist them to understand their cultural socialisation and to encourage boys and men to be equally part of the solutions.

The prevalence of HIV in South Africa further highlights the need for effective programs that specifically target young people. The epidemic forms part of a complex and multi-dimensional web of factors, such as poverty, neglect, sexual abuse, community and domestic violence, gender inequality, poor education, and substance abuse, all of which makes people, especially the youth, vulnerable to exposure and exploitation. Further, research has repeatedly indicated that while the majority of adolescents demonstrate extensive HIV and AIDS knowledge, slightly more than half feel that there is often nothing they can do about contracting HIV, indicating a massive gap between knowledge and a sense of capability and agency.

It is within the confines of this context that young people need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, attitudes and values for positive, constructive life-styles and sustainable, informed choices. In order to make those choices young people need to conceive and understand their society without prejudice, discrimination or distain, negotiating their own place within an equal but diverse community. This is particularly true in relation to adolescent sexuality, where many of the behaviours are initially conceptual, vicariously learned and as yet unperformed (or underperformed) and many of the behavioural determinants appear conflicting and at variance with changing internal feelings and thoughts. Managing sexuality behaviours involves more than making personal behavioural judgments and choices, it requires managing interpersonal relationships. Young people have to exercise control and influence over themselves as well as, usually significant and, at least temporarily, highly valued, others. Managing behavioural choices in this environment requires having or gaining the skills and understanding necessary to engage with the self and environment before the situation is beyond the person’s control, and to develop a sense of personal agency and efficacy over and within their situations, relationships and circumstances.

With the dissolution of family and community structures, due to migrant labour, informal settlements, the rising AIDS death toll, one of the best ways (in many cases the only way) to reach children supportively, is through the school system. Schools are a platform to influence behaviour, values and attitudes enabling young people to grow into confident and responsible citizens through both the curriculum and the school’s community. Youth and education are the building blocks of the future, and schools are the ideal platform to influence behaviour, values and attitudes, building communities and enabling young people to grow into confident, responsible and contributing citizens with a thorough understanding of human rights and democratic principals.

At the same time, however, the attitudes, issues and problems need to be addressed without threatening or destroying their intrinsic value to the individuals that hold to them, their communities or their cultural beliefs. They also need to be addressed as openly and engagingly as possible, to combat and balance the morés and impressions gleaned and imbibed from such powerful influences as the media and social conditioning. It is the youth who have to learn to value themselves, their rights, their hopes and their society, and to believe in themselves, and their abilities, if they are ever to internalise and address these issues and make changes in their lives. This is particularly true for communities which have been historically disadvantaged with regard to education and human-rights, and thus find themselves, their beliefs and their values in seeming conflict with the changing democratic, rights-based society, and especially for the young people in this context, where they often experience that what they are learning or encountering in school and amongst their peers is seemingly in conflict with their family, their home or their community.

The ability to engage with and make choices or change ones attitudes and behaviour in this context is referred to as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a person or a group’s feelings of competency, agency and control with regard to specific issues, behaviours, choices, or change. Self-efficacy is developed through modelling, where the person judges and assesses their capabilities in relation to an observed model (like a peer, or a role model, or a character in a show) and with others, such as their peer group, or community. Self-efficacy is promoted by providing the person with information and understanding about the issue or behaviour, what influences it, and the expected outcomes. To learn to make a choice or change, a person requires opportunities and a safe environment to observe, imitate, experience and reflect on the issue and its consequences; the skills, confidence and self-belief to make a constructive choice regarding it; and positive reinforcement and encouragement to maintain it.

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