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Unisa online - Sexuality, health and democracy in constructing early childhood

Prof Ana Raposo Torres, Prof Veronica McKay, Prof Carlos Torres, Dr Ellen Lenyai and Dr Pinkie Mabunda

On 21 June 2012, Prof Ana Raposo Torres from the Federal University of Paraiba, João Pessoa, Brazil, and her husband, Prof Carlos Alberto Torres, Professor of Social Sciences and Comparative Education and Director of the Paulo Freire Institute (UCLA) visited the newly established Department of Early Childhood Education (ECD) in the College of Education (CEDU). 

Prof Ana Torres shared her experiences of doing research with and teaching children on sexuality-related matters sensitively. She noted that Brazil faces challenges similar to South Africa, particularly with regards to the handling of the subject of sexuality in the family, community and at school. Colleagues in the Department of ECD noted the importance of teaching sexuality issues to young children, especially when thinking about sensitive ways of presenting such a topic to young children.

When Prof Ana Torres first began doing research into the aspect of a child’s sexual curiosity and how this fits in with the responsibilities of a teacher, she began by looking at the language and vocabulary that children use to talk about their bodies, gender and sexuality. Children use popular words, not the scientific ones, however, she said, “as teachers we must use both their casual language and the scientific language when discussing sexuality with the children.” She noted the challenges of soliciting sexuality-related information from young children, but indicated that with patience and the help of pictures and dolls, much information can be obtained.

The researcher also needs to be sensitive to the special ways in which children express themselves and act flexibly.  She carried out her second study at a public school run by Catholics (the nuns) where the religious aspect of their education also played a crucial role. “To my surprise, I received enormous support from the nuns, because, some of the children were known to have experienced sexual violence and/or were living in a vulnerable situation, something that was not expected”, she said.  

Prof Ana Raposo-Torres and Prof Carlos Alberto Torres

Her third study was on sexuality matters amongst young children living in (heterosexual) families and schools where she included in her interviews perspectives of 16 families living in a rural city in a poor area of Brazil.

Her work is driven by a desire to help teachers address issues of sexuality with younger children because they are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse, and most importantly they are sexual beings. However as adults we tend to restrict them from expressing their sexual feelings.  She also noted that children do not hide the truth when they play.  She quoted the words of a German researcher, Walter Benjamin, as he said “children’s play is a much more true reflection of their reality.”

Adults and teachers in particular have a moral responsibility to guide children’s lives and deal with this aspect in a proper way. She further highlighted that children in Brazil are exposed to unrealistic soap opera realities through the television programmes they watch and she would also like to see Early Childhood Education (ECE) material that presents a more realistic reflection of reality which shows how people really experience the world they live in. 

In conclusion, Dr Ana indicated that Early Childhood Education is also a very young discipline in Brazilian universities and remarked that it is important for teachers to read more on this topic so that they can be better informed about the reality in which they work.

Prof Carlos Torres took the floor after the presentation of his wife and delivered a paper entitled “Neoliberal common sense and the challenge to South African universities”. He said that it is important to understand how neoliberalism has reframed the conversation in education, particularly by bringing in an agenda that focuses on privatisation and centralisation.

The reframing of the conversation in education has changed the long standing tradition of education which started around the 1930s. “The use of the concept “common sense” is a construct and something that we do naturally… by using the term “common sense” I am referring to the naturalisation of an ideology, as we see neoliberalism being naturalised as the common sense of the time.”

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