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Silence isn’t good enough, we need better sex education

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Ruvimbo Maria Kuuzabuwe discusses the need for better sex education at home and at school

I grew up in a Zimbabwean Christian home. In my house, we fast forwarded intimate moments in PG 12-15 rated movies, covered our eyes, let the silence pass and resumed like nothing happened.

My introduction to sex came in the form of friends and cousins. The only ‘Talk’ I recall ever having was when one of my other mothers demonstrated how to use sanitary towels. She emphasised the importance of cleanliness and warned us about how we could now get pregnant. Sex was that dirty thing bad girls did, got pregnant and dropped out of school. Quite simply, sex was synonymous with boys, pregnancy and ruining your life.

I remember being scared to ask my mum to sign the consent form for sex education in year six. Only for us to be made to watch dated videos showing us male and female body parts and how sperm swims to egg and makes baby. None of the videos showed differences in body types, sexual health, healthy relationships or sexual harassment.

At 11 years-old I was already a D cup. We didn’t have changing rooms at primary school so boys and girls would change in the classroom together. One day, before PE, my year six teacher took me aside and told me that if I wanted, I could get changed in the storeroom. She must have noticed boys stared at my boobs making me uncomfortable.

At my year six disco some of the boys in my year group decided to perform their rendition of the nursery rhyme “Daisy Daisy” to me. Their version went like this:

Ruvimbo Ruvimbo,
Give me some tits to chew,
I’m so horny both of my balls are blue,
I can’t afford a condom,
A plastic bag will do,
So get in my bed give me some head and some humping too.

I now know that was sexual harassment. I now know that it wasn’t my fault, that I shouldn’t have hated my breasts or tried to hide them in polo necks and that there was no need for me to feel ashamed. I never mentioned it to anyone in my family, we didn’t speak about things like that.

In 2016, the Commons Select Committee published a report on sexual harassment in schools. According to the report, “59% of girls and young women aged 13–21” experienced some form of sexual harassment in schools and colleges. The report even includes a personal testimony from the parent of an 11-year-old girl. But what happens to those girls that are sexually harassed but are too ashamed to disclose?

Patriarchal elements of Zimbabwean culture that I experienced growing up left little room to discuss women’s sexuality. The words, “panevarume” (there’s men in the room) or “hazvitaurwe” (that’s not spoken about, or that’s not to be discussed) are often brought up when conversations that are deemed socially unacceptable are initiated.

I have grown to see society gift shame as the burden for the girl child and glory as reserved for the boy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists speaks of the gendered differences in how children are socialised. She said, “we police girls, we praise girls for virginity, but we don’t praise boys for virginity”

Ruvimbo Maria Kuuzabuwe

When my childhood friend fell pregnant my Dad gave me the longest lecture. I asked my parents whether her parents had talked to her about sex or contraception. My mum responded, “contraception is free in this country, you can find out all the information you want.” How do you ask about something you are embarrassed about?

But when my younger cousin (a boy) got his first girlfriend and my Dad gleamed with pride when he found out. If that was me the response would have been different. These two examples serve as perfect illustrations of what Ngozi Adichie referred to.

Senior Lecturer or Philosopher Dr Phil Hutchinson explores shame from a philosophical perspective and finds that shame and stigma are related to HIV. Shame can lead individuals to elect not to even get tested or once they have been diagnosed they choose not to take their medication. Silence is one of the principal mechanisms with which shame is communicated, internalised then reproduced. Hutchinson also argues that shame is not only a public health concern but one that affects emotional health of individuals.

Public Health England (PHE) reports that young people have the highest rates of STI diagnoses and black and ethnic minority heterosexuals are one of the groups highlighted as being most affected by STIs. PHE attributes this to “cultural, socio-economic and behavioural factors”. People with Black Sub-Saharan African (BSSA) heritage are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDs.

The UK’s Sex and Relationships Education curriculum was written in 2000 and there has been widespread criticism that sex education is inadequate and needs reform.

Researchers Mathew Nyashanu and Laura Serrant found that community members and community leaders from black communities felt that sex education threatened to “undermine culture” and they were therefore sceptical about receiving it. The sex education that I received in 2005 wasn’t compulsory, parents could choose not to allow their children to attend. Given this distrust, it’s probably not uncommon for black pupils to be pulled from sex education altogether by their parents, as its still not mandatory.

In March 2017 the Education Secretary and The Department of Education released proposals to revise sex and relationships education in schools. The bill makes sex education a requirement and allows schools some space to adjust the way this is taught to the needs of their pupils. It looks promising, but on its own, it won’t be enough. It’s unlikely that mainstream sex education will take into account the specific needs and experiences of black girls into account anytime soon, so its time that our communities take responsibility for educating them.

Parents, it’s time to start having open and honest conversations with your children because schools aren’t. Sex education is failing young people and so is the culture of silence in our communities.

For emotional health and wellbeing, as well as for sexual health we need conversations that include how to look after our bodies, that tell us vaginas are supposed to smell like vaginas and not flowers, that vaginal discharge doesn’t need to have glitter in it to make it magical for our partners.

Teach your daughter that sex is not something that is done to her. Teach her that she is an active participant, that she has sex and is not ‘sexed’. That her value does not diminish because she has chosen to have sex with a partner.

Teach your son to value women. Teach him that a woman’s value is not reduced after he has slept with her. If he sees a woman he has touched as dirty then he ought to take a look at his hands.

Your children need you to protect them and for that they require transparency. Your shame is your own, and silence is neglect.

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Ruvimbo Maria Kuuzabuwe is a Master in Gender, Sexuality and Culture from the University of Manchester.  She was born in Zimbabwe and moved to the U.K at the age of 7. She is passionate about women’s rights and has a keen interest in advocating for young black women. She was one of the finalists in the Flight1000 Short story competition and had her short story “Not Today” published in their first issue. In April 2017 she launched Ruariam.com a lifestyle blog as a means document the nuances of her existence as she navigates through life in the diaspora. Tw/Ig: @Ruariam


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Featured image: Hammersmith and Fulham Council

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