Her mother sat her down and asked her, “How long has this been going on?” She replied, “Since last month, I just didn’t know how to tell you.” That was the first time she told her mother about menstruation. The mother congratulated her, saying, “You are a woman now. Menstruation means if you play with boys, you will get pregnant and I will be disgraced.”
She listened attentively to every word, as her mother concluded. She noted in her thoughts, “Boys will get me pregnant. No man will want to marry a girl that is not virgin. I have to cover myself. I should dispose my pads carefully and change often. I should never disgrace Mama.”
As she adjusted to being “mature,” her breasts developed, hips widened, her mother became more strict and she was beaten several times for being seen with boys.
With all the great advice she received, nobody told her that she would have mood swings, or cramps, or be attracted to boys, or diarrhoea during menstruation, or sexual urges. Nobody prepared her for any of that.
Studies done in many parts of Tanzania show that adolescent sexual and reproductive health is a neglected issue, despite being a high risk matter that determines the future of youth development.
The girl’s story leaves a lot to be desired in terms ongoing efforts to create a youth-friendly environment for provision of health sexual and reproductive health services as well as parents’ involvement in guarding the health of young people.
As a victim of misinformation and lack of guidance, the girl’s life changed. There was tension between her and the mother. She could not speak to her mother about what was going on in her life for fear of being beaten. Even when the maid sexually abused her, she kept quiet.
When her Maths teacher touched her inappropriately, she knew it was wrong yet chose to remain silent. She found solace in exactly what she was warned about, the boys.
Years have gone by since that day when the girl first noticed her blood-stained dress. She now knows how to deal with cramps, got herself around sexual urges and can now speak up about abuse.
But she still wishes that she was told more back then, maybe she would have done a lot of things differently. May be she wouldn’t have secretly aborted that child to save her mother from disgrace.
Where are the boys?
Little is known about the masculinity norms and other contextual influences shaping adolescent boys’ perceptions of becoming a man in a modernizing society such as Tanzania, but these may contribute to risky behaviors that endanger health. There is also less evidence on the perspectives of adolescent boys themselves about the influences shaping their participation in and decision-making about safe or unsafe sexual behaviors.
Somewhere in Tanzania, a young man just woke up to find he has just had a wet dream. This is a continuation of other changes he has had recently, his voice deepened, facial and pubic hair growing.
He just increased run-ins with his teachers, he feels that they are unreasonably hard on him. As he and his friend feast on a bowl of porridge, he narrates his dream.
“You are grown now, you can have sex”, his friend tells him. The bell rings and they go back to class. He is excited to try it all.
At the pitch days later, other boys are discussing pornography and he curiously asks, “Where can I watch?”
Years have gone by since the day he had that wet dream, he has somehow figured his way through the nagging sexual emotions. He is fighting pornography addiction, it has broken a couple of his relationships because they didn’t give him what he saw in the porn. But, sadly, he was practicing unsafe sex. He harbours a notion that condoms reduce pleasure.
Today, he wishes that someone, a well experienced adult had talked to him, told him about everything instead of all that he got. He wishes there was someone to ask him about the girls who would go in and out of his room.
If someone had talked to him, maybe he wouldn’t build his sexual knowledge from inexperienced young men and porn. May be he would have made better decisions.
Taught to please men, at a great cost
Somewhere else in Tanzania, a girl has just had her first menstruation and told her mother about it. The mother is euphoric. She calls for celebration. Food cooked, music banging, the street celebrates her.
“You are mature now,” the lesson begins. She is taught how to please a man, the tricks and techniques to keep him. She immediately begins to involve herself with boys, older men sometimes. Nobody questions her. Nobody stops her. She is encouraged. She talks to her mother about her sexual encounters. But nobody is there for her when she is in clandestine.
Years have gone by since the celebration of her becoming a ‘woman’, and she has done almost every trick in the book to keep her men. She has several kids with different men, a number of abortions too.
The more she is exposed to the world, she realizes that there was more to her than pleasing men. That someone would have told her about her maturity and what it really meant.
Not an isolated case
These are stories shared by many teens. They represent a bigger scenario where many Tanzanian youth get their sex education when they hit puberty. The education syllabus teaches reproduction, but the lessons are too academic and not oriented to prepare students about their reproductive health.
Recall back then in secondary school, when a Biology teacher could come in to teach reproduction, in a well-packed classroom. Most of the lessons were filled with laughter, not many took the subject to heart. Did you?
But that’s one problem. The other is, there is a huge gender gap in how boys and girls are treated during puberty. Boys are expected to figure it out by themselves, very few a mentored about it. And when they do, many are filled with misinformation.
Boys are largely neglected in sex education. Meanwhile girls are highly targeted by sex education. They can get pregnant, yet society expects them to remain virgin until marriage. The education they get has proved to be inadequate. In some societies, girls are taught to remain virgin but others are taught to please men, creating a disparity in sex education.
In the end, both groups have inadequate knowledge because one is taught through fearmongering and punishment while the other is taught to do whatever they like because they are believed to be mature.
This discrepancy has created a lot of challenges in the ongoing efforts by stakeholders and the government to improve Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH).
The flaws of the sex education our children are subjected to adds another layer of challenges including sexual abuse, porn addiction, unsafe abortions, teen pregnancy and the increasing number of Sexually Transmitted Infections(STIs) among the youth.
The fact that most boys are encouraged to begin sex while most girls are expected to stay virgins is ironic.
Most societies don’t realize that these groups are interdependent. So, it is quite unrealistic to expect one to abstain while the other remains unlimited.
Apart from improving the sex education provided at school, there is a need to educate the public on matters to do with sex education and equip parents and guardians with skills on how to raise children, appropriately.
Establishment of reproductive health clinics is a crucial step into achieving the goal of provision of sex education to more people.
They are not solely for health education and contraceptive methods, but also for HPV vaccination, therapy and other habits associated with reproductive health.
Sex education equips children with necessary knowledge about their sexuality and reproduction at large. It teaches sexual abuse, contraception and STIs.
Reproductive health education is a major key to reducing and perhaps eliminating the problem of teen pregnancies.
The sex education challlenges are not limited to Tanzania. Some of the challenges faced by adolescents across the world include early pregnancy and parenthood, difficulties accessing contraception and safe abortion, and high rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections. Various political, economic, and sociocultural factors restrict the delivery of information and services; healthcare workers often act as a barrier to care by failing to provide young people with supportive, nonjudgmental, youth-appropriate services.