Faith schools, moral panic, and the HPV vaccine

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Today brought us the news that some secondary schools are opting out of the HPV vaccination programme for girls "on religious grounds". The vaccination, offered to girls aged 12-13, guards against the strains of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer and has had a controversial history. Opposed by people who think it will encourage teens to become promiscuous if they know they're protected against disease, it's been causing moral panic for a while now despite the fact that the idea of a vaccine making young people sexually active is, well, ridiculous. When I was at school, we didn't have the HPV vaccine. I don't remember anyone abstaining from sex because they were worried they'd catch it and therefore put themselves at risk of cervical cancer.

GP magazine found that the majority of the schools opting out of the programme did not inform local GPs of their decision, nor did they inform parents and pupils where they could be vaccinated instead. The reasons given for declining to offer the vaccine are concerning - from "Not in keeping with the school ethos" to " not practise sex outside marriage" and "the school...does not want pupils to feel pressured by peers". All of these statements indicate that the schools in question subscribe to the belief that the HPV vaccine encourages sexual activity, which would be at odds with Christian teaching. They also indicate that the schools see sexual health as somehow irrelevant to their pupils: "Our girls aren't having sex so they don't need the vaccine!" - as if they're somehow above HPV and cervical cancer and will remain this way in the years to come.

There is absolutely no way that the schools in question are fully aware of what pupils are getting up to in their spare time and the extent to which they are or are not sexually active. As a Christian who attended a Christian school I can confidently state that abstinence was not on the agenda for most people I knew. Like the US teens who have taken "purity" pledges and then proceed to go back on their word once they start dating someone, many UK teens - no matter what they have been taught, or encouraged to believe - will go ahead and become sexually active. Attending a faith school is by no means an indicator of religious belief in the first place - I say this as someone who knew plenty of people for whom church attendance was about getting into a good school rather than acquiring a faith. What good does keeping young people in the dark do? About as much good as years of abstinence-only sex education lessons did for US youngsters: none. Are they expected to acquire knowledge about sexual health only as adults, when it might be too late for some?

Scaremongering around the issue of teens and sex while refusing to prepare them for its potential consequences is a tried and tested tactic that achieves nothing. Far better to let young people and their parents decide for themselves whether or not they wish to have the vaccine at the very least, rather than make completely unfounded assumptions about their personal lives. If it saves lives, surely it should be a no-brainer? The idea that giving young people knowledge about sex will lead to them behaving irresponsibly is unfounded and surely one that people need to get over, given the ignorance of many teens surrounding it.

Obviously vaccinations aren't compulsory but the decisions made by these schools as a result of their "ethos", or what they assume about pupils' personal lives, is putting girls at risk in later life. It's sad to see schools buying into the moral panic; this is not something they would do in the case of other vaccinations, and it implies an attitude towards sex that I'd rather not see in UK schools. As the Guardian story states, responsibility for administering the HPV vaccine will change next year, meaning that "there will no longer be any excuse for failing to protect children in this way". 2013 can't come soon enough.

Giving girls power with family planning

Friday, 13 July 2012

Like every woman I know, I've always taken it for granted that I can choose when I want to have children, how many I want to have, and how long I will leave between pregnancies. I've done so because I was taught about what contraception when I was at school. Over the years I've learned more about it - and also where I can get it, which thanks to the NHS, is from my doctor, for free. Pregnancy and contraception are things my husband and I have made decisions about together - meaning that after almost ten years as a couple, I recently gave birth to our first child.

Most of you reading this won't find that unusual, but for hundreds of millions of women the world over, the reality is very different. Right now, 22 million women have an unmet need for family planning. For them, accessing birth control is difficult, even impossible. They might have to walk for several days to reach a clinic, or deal with judgmental attitudes from people in their communities or healthcare providers. That is, of course, if they're aware of the different methods of contraception and how they work. Myths and misinformation abound, and often, their husbands are resistant to the idea.

This is obviously bad news for women and girls. Lack of access to birth control is one problem, but when you combine this with poverty, poor nutrition, child marriage, gender inequality, and poor medical care, it results in thousands of lives being lost every year. On Monday I was able to find out more about just how family planning can save lives, at an evening hosted by Save the Children to promote their Give Girls Power campaign. The charity has been just one of many mobilising to encourage governments to take action this week at Wednesday's family planning summit in London, and commit to helping millions of women access contraception.

I didn't know that pregnancy and childbirth is the number one killer of young women aged between 15 and 19. That's a huge issue in countries where child marriage is common, where discussion of sex and contraception is taboo and where patriarchal culture dictates that men make the rules, while women do as they're told. Save the Children's interactive game created as part of the campaign asks us: "Imagine what life would be like if you weren't able to make your own decisions". It illustrates just how tough - and dangerous - life is for millions of teenage girls.

Visiting the event on Monday was 17-year-old Aselefe, a family planning campaigner and peer educator from Ethiopia. She told us about phoning a contraception helpline at the age of 16, only to be told that they couldn't provide her with any information as she was "too young", and unmarried. Aselefe explained about the "silence" surrounding sex she feels exists between Ethiopian mothers and daughters, meaning that many young women don't know the facts of life - something that frequently causes problems, especially since the average age of marriage in rural areas is just 14.

One of ten children, Aselefe said she didn't want the same sort of life as her mother. She told us that she is literally changing lives through her work as a peer educator, and spoke of her wish to see sex education made part of the school curriculum, and family planning available in all rural health centres.

"It's important to give decision-making abilities to girls," she said.

Wednesday's summit, organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government, resulted in global leaders promising $2.6bn to make sure that family planning services will reach an additional 120 million women and girls in the world's poorest countries by 2020. David Cameron also met Aselefe at the summit. 

"Today we are investing in hope for Aselefe and girls like her," he said. He pledged to double Britain's current commitment to family planning by contributing over £500m over the next eight years. According to the summit's organisers, the commitments made on Wednesday will result in 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy and childbirth, 110m fewer unintended pregnancies, 50m fewer abortions, and 3m fewer babies dying in their first year of life. 

The hard work of Save the Children and other organisations seems to have paid off, and they're looking forward to a future of "groundbreaking" changes for women and girls. 

Read Save the Children's report, Every Woman's Right: How family planning saves women's lives. Or share your personal experiences with contraception and access at the Gates Foundation's No Controversy.

This post was originally published at BitchBuzz.

No wizards; no vampires: what this 80s child read

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Last week marked 15 years since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and a generation of Potter fans has been reminiscing about their introduction to the world of the boy wizard. I'm too old to have read the books as a child - I actually read them for the first time at the age of 19 - and it's got me thinking about some of my most-loved books, wondering if they're still popular now, and wondering what the primary school students and tweens of today are into. Do they still read The Baby-sitters Club books in all their ghostwritten, predictable glory, which I notice were re-released in 2010? Where are all the fans of historical fiction? Are they mainly into vampires these days thanks to That Series That Shall Not Be Named?

Gracing my bookshelves back in the early/mid-90s and providing fond memories today, here are ten childhood favourites (all images show the editions I owned):

My favourite childhood books usually involved several key elements: the past, events from history (the more gruesome the better), magic and mystery, and time travel. Children of Winter has it all. Three children sheltering from the weather in a barn get transported back in time to the 17th century and the time of the Great Plague. Ker-ching! Books like this featured heavily in my childhood; they seemed to be a popular choice with teachers, helping us learn about events in history, which I obviously had no objection to whatsoever.

Despite not being even remotely inclined towards dancing (I had a couple of lessons, aged three, and hated them) or acting, I couldn't get enough of Ballet Shoes. The quirky upbringing of Pauline, Petrova, and Posy - the Fossil sisters - probably had a lot to do with this, and I remember adoring the illustrations by Ruth Gervis. Didn't the ending make you misty-eyed? Altogether now: "We three Fossils vow to try and put our names in history books..."

Not one of Dick King-Smith's better-known efforts, but seriously. A talking doll. From the past. My eight-year-old self is jumping up and down with glee. Found in an attic by a boy named Ned, Lady Daisy educates him about the 19th century, which comes in handy for his school project on the Victorians. He gets picked for owning a doll by the school bully and it's also a source of anxiety for his father, who would prefer him to be carrying a football around instead (down with restrictive gender stereotyping!).

A lot of people remember the cult 1988 BBC adaptation of Moondial, which is how I first came across it too. Once again it's got that combination of magic, mystery, history, and time travel, with a touch of morbidity and creepiness - hooded figures in the dark, covered mirrors, and a girl who's known as the 'Devil's child'. Having seen the television series first, I was delighted to get my hands on the book a few years later.

Bit obvious, this one, but Enid Blyton's tales of boarding school were ones I read and re-read, having inherited my mum's copies. The midnight feasts! Swimming and lacrosse! The alien concept of 'the honour of the school'! The character tropes that were a feature of both schools: the Mean Girl, the Tomboy, the Snob, the 'Outlandish' Foreign Girl, the 'Mouse' - were predictable, and it's easy to cringe at some of the less-enlightened language used by the author. But I'm not going to deny that I was once a fan.

We were big fans of Lucy Boston's super-whimsical Green Knowe books in our house. They were based locally, and we even named our dog after key character Tolly. Predictably for me, the series is full of history, mystery, and magic. An Enemy at Green Knowe was always my favourite, thanks to the fact it features the evil Melanie Powers and her witchcraft. Of course, good triumphs over evil, and Melanie's schemes are thwarted by Tolly and his friend Ping.

How awesome was Anastasia Krupnik? I was hooked on her exploits as a tween. I could identify with Anastasia in so many ways, from her secret notebook scribblings to her hatred of gym class. In the editions of the books carried by my local library, each cover was emblazoned with the strapline "The girl who thinks for herself" (oh yes!). In Anastasia's Chosen Career, our heroine enrolls in modelling school in an attempt to boost her self-confidence and poise, hoping it'll help her on her way to becoming a bookstore owner.

Judith Kerr's classic, based on her childhood experience of fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s, satisfied my love of history. The story follows Anna, a nine-year-old Jewish girl, as she and her family hurriedly leave their old lives behind to move to Switzerland, then Paris. Anna's tales of acclimatizing to life in a new country have stayed with me. Weirdly I have never read the two further books Kerr wrote to continue the story - that's something I've always planned to do as an adult but haven't yet got round to.

In the early 1990s, Channel 4 re-ran the television series adapted from the Little House books. As soon as I could, I got my hands on them, and became totally obsessed with the Ingalls family. In my make-believe world, being a pioneer girl was one of my favourite things to 'pretend' - living through the 'long winter', exploring the prairie, and wondering what the hell 'molasses' and 'cornbread' were. I'm really keen to get my hands on The Wilder Life, in which Wendy McClure explores the Little House world.

One of Princess Amethyst's fairy godmothers tells her "You shall be ordinary!" - and so instead of growing up like your typical fairytale princess, she ends up with straight mousy hair and freckles, prefers to be called Amy, and likes playing in the woods. When she finds out that her concerned parents are hatching a plan to get her married off to some Prince Charming character, she runs away. Amy soon realises that she needs to earn a living and gets a job as a kitchenmaid, where she meets a new friend. A nice twist on the whole 'princess' thing.

Honourable mentions for books I wanted to include: The Witches and Matilda - Roald Dahl; the Ramona Quimby books - Beverley Cleary; Witch Week - Diana Wynne Jones; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe - C. S. Lewis; The Railway Children - E. Nesbit; The Whitby Witches - Robin Jarvis; Emily of New Moon - L. M. Montgomery; Little Women - Louisa May Alcott.

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