Tag: sex

Sex education: What Nollywood and sermons don’t teach

(Pic: Flickr / Nollywood Artist)
(Pic: Flickr / Nollywood Artist)

Positive parenting had began to gain popularity among parents and teachers in the small Nigerian town of Sapele where I grew up, and my school was not going to be left behind.

So, every Valentine’s Day saw us assembled in our school hall to be treated to a film screening. Somehow, my teachers always managed to find the same kind of Nollywood story: good girls who kept themselves pure in the midst of the moral morass of youth and married handsome, wealthy men who loved them dearly for their virtue and would do anything to have them.  In the late 1990s, the whole film show business seemed like such a big deal. But did it occur to anybody to question the choice of Nollywood as a viable Sex Ed aid? I I don’t think so.

Before the film played, it was mandatory that we live through 30 minutes or so of reorientation. The big colour television, placed at the centre of our school hall, would be on, the blue screen waiting, while a teacher – preferably the most religious or the most willing/concerned – talked to us about our changing bodies. By an unspoken consensus, on days like this – on other days too, but especially on days like this –  everybody tried to avoid the use of certain words. And, standing in line, my breath held, my self-comportment overstretched, it was easy to understand why.

Those words, in their raw carnal forms, had terrible pitfalls. We had seen it happen many times; girls we knew, swallowed whole by the scotching intimacy of carnal words. Girls who knew about breasts and hips. Girls who we could tell, just by looking at them, that they were doing ‘it’. Girls who became pregnant. The general impression being that good girls just did not notice their bodies.

For the same reason that these words could just not be said, these films we saw were less about whatever narratives they managed to have and more about the overarching message. That narrative was: Good girls wait and are rewarded, bad girls end up with babies on their backs walking the streets looking lost. Good boys graduate, get great lives and have beautiful families, bad boys end up unfinished and angry at the world.

Then one year, our ‘exposed’ Home Economics teacher brought back a new movie Yellow Card (Zimbabwean) from one of her trips to Lagos. That film represents for me, to this day, a kind of epiphany.  At school that day, I saw a story that was by miles different, unnerving even, but possible. I saw young people who were preoccupied with sex but also preoccupied with education and careers. It showed them making mistakes but also it showed them trying to make better choices. And for showing this, that sex was not so much the problem as much as poor sexual choices were, for attempting to move the frame of conflicts to a flexible one, the whole positive parenting film show thing became suspect.  Our teachers feared we would become confused. And so, the whole film-screening campaign with its preemptive concern for possible life-altering choices was quietly shelved.

If campaigns to improve sexual and reproductive health education has done anything well in the last couple of decades, it is that it has increased the willingness of parents, schools and religious bodies to talk to about sexual and reproductive health. In communities like the one where I grew up, and perhaps communities like it mirrored all through Africa, this is how you mostly learn sex education: from well-meaning people in churches and schools who would designate whole programs to “talk to the young people about sex”, but deliberately neuter or thwart the message in the “best interests” of young people.

Recently, I attended a church program where the guest speaker, a woman from a religious NGO, insisted that “the computer age” was directly responsible for the proliferation of abortions in young girls. And as I sat there listening to her say these things in her confident, measured voice, I was not worried by the certainty of her illogic. It was the readiness, gratitude almost, with which the audience swallowed this rare information that worried me. The nature of information that was disseminated is problematic, perhaps enough to be counter-productive?

The statistics around abortion appear conflicting. Certain research shows that this conservative approach to sex education led to better sexual behaviour. Other research shows that it did not reduce the abortion rate. And that worse still, the numbers of unsafe abortions in countries like Nigeria are as high as ever. While this says nothing definitive about the challenges that apply to the methods of Sex Education currently practiced in Nigeria and other African countries, enough information exists that draws attention to the inadequacies of the approach.

From school lessons in the 1990s to school lessons now, SEX = SIN is the form of sex education that young people are getting, instead of the more pertinent ‘there are safe ways to have sex’. This is mostly because Nigeria, like much of Africa, is a highly religious space, where your Sunday School teacher most likely doubles as your concerned/willing school teacher, so there is the unavoidable problem of an overlap of the same kinds of sermonised sex education everywhere.

The dangers of going out to seek or buy protection can still seem as big and as real as the dangers of reckless, unsafe sex in certain communities. And this sermonised form of Sex Education which very often equates the emphasising of condom and contraceptive use as promoting irresponsibility, if anything, contributes to the entrenchment of conservative ideas in communities that are already too conservative.

Sex education is everywhere; on billboards, on TV, in churches, in schools, but it is still a long way from being about the simple and most basic thing: the right to protect yourself. It is yet to transcend religion or what I am willing to telling you. It is yet to be about life, about safety, about options.

Kechi Nomu writes from Warri, Nigeria. Her poems have appeared in Saraba Magazine and Brittle Paper.

Kenya: Putting an end to transactional sex and letting girls be girls

It was a Facebook message from Liz Moran at the Women’s Institute of Secondary Education and Research (Wiser) that prompted me to research and write this article.

Part of it read: “Many girls engage in transactional sex in order to pay school fees or buy sanitary pads resulting in some of the highest HIV rates in the country (38%). The barriers for female education are so strong that in 30 years, only one woman from the community had attended University.”

This is happening in Muhuru Bay, a town in the Nyanza Province of Kenya. It is situated on the banks of Lake Victoria, close to the Tanzanian border.

The facts haunted me. Young girls engage in sex with fishermen in order to pay for school fees or sanitary towels. And it gets worse: women fishmongers in the fishing communities commonly form relationships with fishermen to secure the rights to purchase the fish they catch and then sell them in the market. The sex exchange typically occurs in a hurried manner, often without preparation or protection. As it compromises their ability to practise safer sex, men and women in these fishing communities are at increased risk of HIV.

Given the nomadic nature of the fishing community here and a lack of education about HIV and Aids, it is thus not surprising that out of at least every ten people, about four of them are HIV positive. Recent figures from the Kenya National HIV and Aids Estimates say that Kenya has the fourth highest HIV prevalence in the world, with about 1.6 million people infected with the virus. Of these, an estimated 191 840 are children.

In the larger Lake Victoria region, it is also common for women and girls to have sex with fishermen to obtain food, or to get fish to sell in order to pay for medicine or school fees. Therefore, it is necessary to break this cycle by offering a solution to at least one of the challenges.

Wiser seems to have found a good one.

“We run an entirely free high school for girls in Muhuru Bay, a fishing village in rural Kenya,” Moran told me. “Girls here rarely complete secondary school. They are forced into marriages, become pregnant, drop out of school to enable their brothers to continue, suffer physical and psychological abuse, and have a general lack of support and positive female role models.”

Students at Wiser. (Pic: Supplied)
Students at Wiser. (Pic: Supplied)

In 2006, Dr Sherryl Broverman, co-founder of Wiser, discovered a note that was slipped under her door while she was in Muhuru Bay doing research. “Should I stop having sex with the man who is paying my school fees? I am afraid of getting Aids,” it read. The note was from a 14-year-old girl.

In 2007, Wiser was formed to empower young girls in Muhuru Bay through education. Here girls would be offered a chance to study for free as well as get hands-on skills in agriculture, reproductive health and engineering. The girls would be removed from the environment that predisposed them to health risks, lack of education and instead get a chance to be girls.

The Wiser school in Muhuru Bay provides clothes, sanitary pads, books, healthy food, supportive teachers, mosquito nets, and medicine. About 150 girls have gone through the school, and girls who are pregnant are also welcomed. The school offers counselling and psychosocial support for its students while also helping them realise their talents and leadership skills. According to Wiser and Kenya’s Ministry of Health, this region has the highest HIV, malaria and infant mortality rates in the country.

“Our maiden class graduated this year in March and all the 28 girls passed their final Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education and 17 have qualified for university,” said Moran. “We know that those are girls who will lead their families and communities. They are innovative – some are making solar powered items from recycled materials.”

Members of Wiser's Engineering Club. The girls have created flashlights with locally available materials which they hope to franchise. (Pic: Supplied)
Members of Wiser’s Engineering Club. The girls have created flashlights with locally available materials which they hope to franchise. (Pic: Supplied)

Evidently, Wiser has long been living up to this year’s International Day of the Girl Child theme, ‘Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence’. By creating a fee-free secondary school, the organisation is changing the notion of what is possible for girls in Muhuru Bay, and also ending the vicious cycle of transactional sex and gender-based violence in school.

“Before coming to Wiser, the girls were in schools where their teachers touched them inappropriately and others were raped. Due to this, some dropped out. Here, we take a deliberate initiative to protect the girls while in school and we minimise their time out of school as well,” Moran said.

Girls around the world still face discrimination simply because they are girls. As we mark International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, the reality is that there are those who may still have to trade their bodies for a pen, a book or a sanitary pad. Fortunately for the girls in Muhuru Bay, they have one less challenge to overcome. Their education is being catered for and they are gradually being empowered to make their own informed decisions.

Hopefully when the UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka marks the day at Unicef, she will challenge each and every one of us to empower our adolescent sisters. We may have resources that we can share to educate them. We may mentor them, we may share our experiences with them, so they could learn from us and us from them.

There is a need for a generation of young girls who are actively involved in their well-being and who are proactively taking steps to end the cycle of violence and inequality. And then, they need to carry it forward to those who come after them.

It is my hope that young girls across Africa will stop exchanging sex for any basic commodities, not merely because of the risk of HIV and Aids or pregnancy, but because they do not have to.

Eunice Kilonzo is a journalist in Kenya.

Fish sperm potions and camel’s milk concoctions keep love alive in Nigeria

(Pic: Flickr / Ani Thompkins)
(Pic: Flickr / Ani Thompkins)

Has your love life lost its spark? Too tired after long days at work? Or maybe you suspect your partner’s eye has been wandering?

Zainab Usman, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, says she has the solution for all these problems. Walking through a room lined with jars, bottles and gourds, perfumed air trailing in her wake, she ticks off each remedy on delicately manicured fingers. Out come a stream of names that sound like a cross between children’s sweets and street slang for class A drugs.

There is the “wonder wand”, a vial of peppercorn-sized pills that promise to enhance intimate experiences. Zuman mata, which translates as “woman’s honey” in northern Nigeria’s Hausa language, is guaranteed to “keep a man coming back”. Or how about tsumi, a herb and camel’s milk concoction that Usman has nicknamed “cocaine” which, if its effects match up to the claims, is best taken only if the user has several days spare to recover?

This is the world of kayan mata (“women’s things”), a five-century-old practice in northern Nigeria and neighbouring Niger aimed at keeping married couples’ love lives lubricated, so to speak. Handed down the generations by women, the creams, scrubs, perfumes and tablets are made using local herbs and roots that grow in the arid north. Traditionally meant to prepare a bride for marriage and ensure social stability by keeping couples happily married, they are growing in popularity.

Men have their own version, called maganin maza (“men’s potions”), which includes chilli-infused foods.

Neither country particularly needs a helping hand in the sex department: 11 000 babies are born every day in Nigeria, the world’s eighth most populous country, while Niger has the world’s highest birth rate. But the centuries-old kayan mata is one of the few times when sex is openly discussed amid an otherwise decidedly old-fashioned approach to discussing physical intimacy and its consequences.

“In the north, girls start learning about it at a very young age,” said Usman, whose female in-laws presented her with a kayan matagift box on the eve of her wedding. It accompanied the equally traditional gara – a gift of kitchen utensils as the couple started a new home.

“The south is a good market for me because it’s still new here, although I’m not sure Lagosians are ready for this,” says Usman, who has started selling her wares in Lagos, hundreds of miles south of her home city of Sokoto.

As two giggling friends visit Usman, a third hovers disapprovingly nearby, though not so far as to be out of earshot.

“Do you have ones that uplift breasts?” the first friend asks.

“Of course,” replies Usman, pouring a thick liquid into a tiny jar. For good measure, she adds a green powder called danagadas (“the one from Agadez” – a city in Niger’s Sahara desert). “I can’t use this one very much, I’d be too tired,” she adds.

What happens, one of the women wants to know, if you stop taking the herbs?

“Your husband will notice a massive difference straight away,” Usman says, snapping her fingers. The two friends look at each other and fall about laughing.

“You guys are making me feel uncomfortable,” Usman says, a hint of reproach in her voice. “I’m trying to help you. It’s not a big deal – women have been using this for ages.”

The ingredients of kayan mata have changed little over 500 years except, perhaps, that dried camel’s milk is now preferred to fresh as the goods travel longer distances. Typically, products have a base of rice, honey, millet and tiger nuts. Fish sperm and manatee fat are sometimes thrown in. Key, though, are the roots of the desert-growing jujube, baobab and catchthorn trees, which have long been used medicinally across the Sahara. Some herbs are so localised English translations are hard to come by.

“There’s no reason to suppose that there’s not some interesting ethnopharmacology behind the use of these remedies,” says James Moffatt, a senior lecturer at St George’s hospital, University of London.

Nevertheless some may be placebos similar to the western perception that oysters are aphrodisiacs, he says. “If dim lights, mood music and a plate of molluscs do it for one culture, why not camel milk and dates for another?”

Business is certainly booming. Big-name dealers include one of the wives of former president Ibrahim Babangida.

In the labyrinthine streets of Wuse market in the capital Abuja, Umar Mohammed, 56, sits in his booth surrounded by imitation gold jewellery, intriguingly named fake perfumes, sequinned headscarves and incense burners.

But at a word from two visiting customers, he springs into life and throws open a cupboard full of the familiar vials and powders. “Why didn’t you say [what you wanted] right away?” after two elderly women in hijabs spend 15 minutes apparently poring over a single stick of incense.

He tries to sell them a dust-covered box of products whose extraordinary price is justified, he says, as it came from Malaysia. “When a woman uses these products, she will look and smell like a flower, which is how it should be.”

Teenagers, risky sex and pregnancy in SA

How is it possible that we know the correct behaviour or the healthiest practice and yet we don’t follow it? Is it human nature or just a lack of discipline?

I’m guilty of this when it comes to my weight. No amount of knowledge I acquire or books I read can help me get off my roller-coaster ride of weight gain and loss.

I see teenage pregnancy in South Africa in the same light. Having loads of information about it is not enough to change our behaviour. One would think that young people today have enough tools to avoid unwanted pregnancy: contraception is available and sexual health information is a fingertip or a cell phone away. But many girls still fall pregnant before finishing high school. In 2009 alone, more than 49 000 schoolgirls, mostly black and poor, gave birth in South Africa, according to the United Nations Population Fund. This not only endangers their education and their future, it  also places a huge burden on their families.

(Pic: AFP)
(Pic: AFP)

That number of 49 000 pregnant schoolgirls means that as many boys and men impregnated them. Hey, it takes two to tango.

Why does this happen? What perpetuates this cycle?

An insightful 2009 study by researchers Jewkes, Morrell and Christofides aptly summed it up: “Teenage pregnancy is not just an issue of reproductive health and young women’s bodies but, rather, one of its causes and consequences, rooted in women’s gendered social environment.”

Sad but true. Our environment influences young women hugely. In some South African communities, young women are pressured to prove their fertility at a young age, and so they fall pregnant, simultaneously risking contracting sexually transmitted infections and HIV.

And if that’s not enough, they are often left to raise the babies alone because the father is “unknown” – meaning he is either married, or not ready to assume this responsibility, or does not want a child, or is still too young so he gets to continue with his education – while she (the expecting mother) likely drops out of school to care for the baby.

In addition, young women have to wrestle with the societal expectations that they must be conservative and passive.

We are also expected to prove our social status – to look a certain way, wear certain clothes, and be seen possessing certain material things.  Dating someone older to provide these status symbols or necessities seems the easier route – no matter the cost.

However, experience has taught me otherwise: nothing is ever for mahala, meaning there are no freebies in life. What you do today will determine your future.

These were the figures reported about HIV in South Africa by the Human Sciences Research Council:

  • Among teenagers, girls have eight times the HIV infection rate than their male peers.
  • Girls aged 15-19 are more likely than boys the same age to have sex, and sex with older men.
  • Condom use has dropped significantly among young people.

To change this gut-wrenching reality, we must ask some hard questions:

  • Can we honestly see progress in South Africa when so many girls still fall pregnant and/or contract HIV daily?
  • Can we not take advantage of the booming social networks and other creative platforms to create safe spaces for dialogue around the real reasons why young black girls are falling pregnant today?

We should change our way of dealing with this sensitive social issue. Let us be less prescriptive about the young girls’ behaviour and meet them where they are.

Hearing their voices when messages and programmes are designed will help us address the real issues behind teenage pregnancy in South Africa.

To walk the talk, I am developing an interactive session for a group of high school students aged 14-17 in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. We use applied drama and theatre methods to build a platform for dialogue around teenage pregnancy. I’ll keep you posted.

Zandi Mqwathi  is a confident, innovative young leader and a former radio personality with a zeal and drive to use her craft and experiences to educate and empower other young women. She writes for Countdown to Zero, a  Unicef/Inter Press Service project.

Tunisian women waging ‘sex jihad’ in Syria: minister

Tunisian women have travelled to Syria to wage “sex jihad” by comforting Islamist fighters battling the regime there, the country’s Interior Minister Lotfi ben Jeddou has told MPs. “They have sexual relations with 20, 30, 100” militants, the minister told members of the National Constituent Assembly on Thursday.

Rebel fighters scouting in the Syrian city of Homs. (Pic: AFP)
Rebel fighters scouting in the Syrian city of Homs. (Pic: AFP)

“After the sexual liaisons they have there in the name of ‘jihad al-nikah’ – (sexual holy war, in Arabic) – they come home pregnant,” Ben Jeddou told the MPs. He did not elaborate on how many Tunisian women had returned to the country pregnant with the children of jihadist fighters.

Jihad al-nikah, permitting extramarital sexual relations with multiple partners, is considered by some hardline Sunni Muslim Salafists as a legitimate form of holy war. The minister also did not say how many Tunisian women were thought to have gone to Syria for such a purpose, although media reports have said hundreds have done so.

Hundreds of Tunisian men have also gone to join the ranks of the jihadists fighting to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However, Ben Jeddou also said that since he assumed office in March, “six thousand of our young people have been prevented from going there” to Syria.

He has said in the past that border controls have been boosted to intercept young Tunisians seeking to travel to Syria. Media reports say thousands of Tunisians have, over the past 15 years, joined jihadists across the world in Afghanistan Iraq and Syria, mainly travelling via Turkey or Libya.

Abu Iyadh, who leads the country’s main Salafist movement Ansar al-Sharia, is the suspected organiser of a deadly attack last year on the US embassy in Tunis and an Afghanistan veteran. He was joint leader of a group responsible for the September 9, 2001 assassination in Afghanistan of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud by suicide bombers. That attack came just two days before the deadly Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and Pentagon in Washington. — AFP