“S…E…X…” I read the letters aloud as I scrawl them across the poster paper taped to the wall behind me, and the room erupts with a cacophony of laughter.
I am standing in S.O.U.L. Foundation’s weekly Youth Mentorship Programme, which brings university and secondary student leaders together with younger students, providing them with a safe space to discuss their goals, challenges and ideas with their peers. Today, my co-fellow and I are taking on something that has never been done at S.O.U.L. before: we are talking about sex.
The laughter is to be expected. Placed with a women’s empowerment organization, my co-fellow and I recognize the pressing need to engage youth, particularly males, in constructive discussions about sex and gender relations. Yet in my six months in Uganda, I have never heard the topic of sex broached in conversation without the concomitant meltdown into youthful giggling or boisterous laughter, no matter the age group, which makes constructive dialogue a bit of a challenge. But we press on.
We start our mentorship session by asking everyone to write down what “sex” means to them and why it is important to talk about, followed by asking them why it is always met with laughter. They say that there is never a circumstance where they can talk about it in a group, that it is uncomfortable and awkward so they cannot help but laugh.
As one frustrated student later informs me, “no one talks to us about sex…not our mothers, our fathers, no one. We only learn about sex in school…even at school the female teachers tell us it is not our mothers who should be talking to us about sex, that it is not their job.”
I think back to elementary school in America. I remember watching sex-ed videos in my 5th grade classroom, giggling with friends to animated dramatizations of male puberty. The group of 16 promising students under S.O.U.L. Foundation’s education bursary program sitting in front of us say they have learned about it in their classes – about HIV, about STDs and the risk of pregnancy – but in this district it is hardly, if ever, discussed beyond designated sexual education sessions moderated by a local NGO once per semester. I am quickly reminded that sex is often a very uncomfortable conversation topic for most.
Perhaps that is why at a meeting I attended recently that convened local health policymakers and religious leaders, that same laughter was omnipresent as we spent hours discussing why Uganda’s Busoga region boasts the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Uganda (30.6%). Religious leaders blamed moral decay in Uganda fueled by social media; some public officials cited the absurd belief that women’s provocative clothing “forces men to want to have sex with them.” I viewed some opinions with disbelief, others with genuine interest, but I left the meeting feeling that something quintessential was still left out: the lack of opportunities for safe and open dialogue about sex for youth around the world.
My mind returns to the open dialogue that is happening right in front of me, and through the smiles and laughter, these teenagers are really engaging in this issue.
Though, I am troubled when that laughter fails to subside once the issue of sexual consent is brought up.
“Let’s say a boy and a girl meet at a party, and the boy wants to play sex but the girl does not. The girl says no. Should the boy and the girl both have the same power to make the decision about whether they play sex? Raise your hand if you think they should.”
My question is met with smirks, silence, and a room devoid of raised hands. I repeat the question. A few hands rise into the air. A few boys laugh and shake their heads, and the heads of the other girls are bowed in what appears to be an amalgamation of embarrassment, uncertainty, and fear. I probe for explanations. One boy claims that the decision making power is not equal, that if the girl says no, God has given men and boys the power to convince her that it is a good idea. Other boys echo this sentiment. The girls are silent.
We break into small groups and discuss the same scenario, thinking through the decision making process for both parties. I find myself having to remind one bright young man, “if a girl says no, it means NO.” I repeat the mantra, and the unabashed confidence and wry smile with which he answered the question turns to a look suggesting he is considering my words as a novel truth. We drive this point home to everyone and dismiss them, hoping the dialogue continues beyond the session. Suddenly, their continuing laughter is actually encouraging.
Global Health Corps is my first professional opportunity to research and advocate for women’s issues, from maternal health, to preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, to working to prevent sexual and gender-based violence through discussions such as this.
We must commit ourselves to involving males in the global discussion about women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and about treating women with basic respect. Without involving males in these conversations, men who have been raised to believe that they have more power to make decisions than women will always view gender relations in a detrimentally one-sided manner, potentially acting upon archaic norms in ways that harm women.
Without frank and open dialogue, the pandemic of violence against women will never end.
Let’s talk about the things that make us laugh, things that make us cry, things that make us afraid. Let’s talk about the things that make us cringe, things that make us uncomfortable, things that make us question what we believe, and things that make us question who we are. Let’s talk about the things that divide us, and let’s talk about the things that bring us together.
Let’s talk about sex. If we don’t, there will be far too many lessons learned the hard way for far too many youth in this world, and for far too long.
This blog post was originally posted on the Global Health Corps blog, where you can find the reflections and insights of all 128 GHC Fellows serving in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Malawi and the United States. Big thanks to Medium for publishing this piece as well.