This year, the African Union (AU) theme of the year is Arts, Culture and Heritage and as the AU Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child Marriage, and building on my work with the Rosaria Memorial Trust, I can confidently say that sexuality education is not new or foreign to African culture.
Our African culture has been rich over centuries with non-formal education platforms, such as Nhanga in Zimbabwe, Egumeni in Eswatini and Chinamwali in Malawi – all of which provided sexuality education that helped girls and young people understand their bodies and to negotiate relationships.
Definitely, some of them need to be transformed and reformed so that we remove the negative and the toxic approaches that are not aligned with human rights values, but our culture has been so rich and sexuality education is embedded within our own values as a people. It’s even depicted in African dress. We have such a sexualised dress code, but it doesn’t mean that it gives licence for girls to be touched or to be abused.
This is our real culture, our African culture that we should be proud of, and that we should improve to become more aligned with current changes. In our culture, parents, family and community members are the first source of information for children on health, wellbeing, sexuality and gender. Children learn both good and bad things in the home and community, and these get either reinforced or confused when they interact with the outside world, through school, through TV or radio, the internet, and with friends.
We need to continue our cultural traditions of teaching our children to develop happy, healthy and respectful relationships that will enable them to have happy and healthy families of their own in the future.
We have just concluded the Third AU Girls Summit, looking at harmful practices, especially female genital mutilation and child marriage. Within it was a re-commitment of Africa to sexual and reproductive health and rights and to age-appropriate and context-specific comprehensive sexuality education. This continental commitment to action exists; therefore, we are calling for implementation by the governments in the eastern and southern Africa region through the renewal of the ESA Commitment. We need to come together and provide the sexuality education and services that young people need, to identify what violence against children and women looks like, including sexual violence, and to understand injustice based on gender.
Covid-19 has resulted in the closure of schools, in restrictions of movement, and the data have been showing high levels of teenage pregnancy, child marriage and incest. I run a shelter and have personally witnessed these cases. It speaks significantly to the importance of sexuality education and the need for our governments to take a comprehensive approach that deals with knowledge, with education, with services and with referral pathways, but ultimately to continue to protect the dignity and rights of young people, especially girls.
Those who say that sexuality education has any other aims than to reinforce healthy and positive values about bodies, puberty, relationships, sex and family life, and to keep children safe from abuse by teaching them about their bodies, are lying. They do not want African children to develop to their full potential and have confidence, self-esteem and life-saving skills. Our children will learn to uphold the universal values of equality, love and kindness, and they will do so from getting good-quality sexuality education, which always has been and should remain part of our cultural ethos. The renewal of the ESA Commitment is the means to implement our continental and international commitments, especially in the face of Covid-19-induced challenges for girls. DM/MC