A person’s culture and worldview affect their understanding of sex and sex education. Many rites of passage are centered around puberty and preparing boys and girls for their respective roles in their culture. Some practices put young people at risk for sexual abuse, gender-based violence (GBV), Female genital mutilation (FGM), and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A culture’s worldview about sex will determine which sexual practices they accept and embrace.
I grew up in West Africa surrounded by a culture that placed a high value on female virginity and sexual monogamy. FGM is commonly practiced in West Africa in order to ensure that a woman will remain faithful in marriage. (https://www.voanews.com/science-health/female-genital-mutilation-still-prevalent-west-africa) I have also heard that sometimes women are inspected before marriage to ensure that she has not been sexually active. Women that have, may have an operation to make it appear as if she has not.
When I moved to Southern Africa as an adult, I learned that some of the practices in this part of Africa are much different than those I observed as a young adult in West Africa. Many cultures in Malawi place a high value on fertility. In some tribes, girls are taken to the village and are taught about sex from the community’s sex educator. At the end of their training a “hyena” forces himself on each of the girls in order to “teach” her about sex. Girls are encouraged to practice sex so that they will be comfortable with it. (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37431005) It is not uncommon for a visiting male relative or guest to sneak into the room at night and force himself on the girls in the home. Many girls are taught to tolerate it, not complain or say anything, and give in. Thankfully, women are starting to speak up and measures are being taken to protect girls and women.
Sadly some girls have found that they can use sex as a commodity. One form of exploitation is when university-bound girls are expected to sleep with their benefactor to receive school fees. Teenagers only have to perform a few services to get money for a new outfit or some jewelry. While not universal, these arrangements occur commonly enough that they contribute significantly to the mindset that women’s bodies are for sale.
With all of these practices, it is no surprise that the teen pregnancy rates are incredibly high. As mentioned earlier fertility is a high cultural value. In fact, in this part of Africa, often a man and his family would like to know that a woman can get pregnant before he commits to marrying her. While men may want to marry women that they know have been pregnant before, they are frequently not willing to raise a child that was conceived before their marriage. For this reason, we see a large number of children abandoned at the age of two or three years when the mother is ready to marry, but her future husband will not raise her child. Some feel that making abortions legal would protect women from these hardships. However, the legalization of abortion would only worsen the pressure to prove fertility before marriage and then the girl would suffer the physical risk and emotional trauma of an abortion.
In the fight against STIs, including HIV, the healthcare system has embraced the fact that STIs in this part of Africa are universal. Any female that presents to the clinic with abdominal page within a specific age range is automatically treated for STIs. HIV is regularly tested and treated. Sex education and condoms are distributed in schools. However, it is difficult to teach youth to use condoms correctly, and it is an expense that students are not usually willing to pay.
A lot of parents and communities reject the old cultural practices that are rooted in GBV and are harmful to their young people. Christian parents are telling their children that they should not have sex outside of marriage. They often feel like they have a small voice as an overwhelming minority speaking out for abstinence until marriage. Unfortunately, some parents and community leaders have gone too far and said that sex itself is a sin. This unbiblical view of sex can cause guilt and fear which complicates the sexual relationship within marriage. The predominant religion throughout Southern Africa is Christianity. Christians here have a lot of respect for the Bible and its teachings. However, I have found a lot of people do not know what the Bible actually teaches about sex.
In African culture, children have a lot of respect for their parents. Many African children and young adults feel that they cannot talk with their parents about sex because it would be shameful. Because of past cultural experiences, lack of health information, and this cultural perspective of respect, parents often feel uncomfortable and alone when it comes to teaching their children about sex. A lot of Christian young people shared that their parents just did not say anything about sex, so they were ill-equipped and unprepared for the changes of puberty and how to abstain from extramarital sex.
We (Amess, Grace, Jacqueline, and Laura) developed this sex education preventive health tool, God’s Gift for Marriage, to equip parents to teach their children about sex. A Malawian friend and mother of three and I started by researching what the Bible has to say about who’s responsibility it is to teach our children. We found that the Bible clearly states that parents are responsible for teaching God’s commands. Next, we looked up Scripture about what God teaches about sex. With two other friends, we wrote a dialogue of an African mother teaching her daughter about sex. These African friends read the material and made edits so that it would be both biblically rooted and relevant to the cultural context. Then it was tested in several sites. Some have read the dialogue as a skit at youth events and divided the youth into small groups for discussions. Others have used this dialogue in women’s groups to equip mothers to teach children in their own homes.
Here is why I, as a health care provider, believe that a Bible-based sex education tool like this is the most effective preventive health approach to STIs, GBV, and teen pregnancy:
- It educates children about what to expect with puberty and sex.
- It teaches girls that their bodies are not a commodity but that themselves are valuable.
- It teaches boys to respect and love girls and to not feel pressured to have sex or to pressure girls for sex.
- It teaches about the need to treat STIs, HIV testing, and preventing sexual abuse.
- If both the boy and the girl embrace abstinence until marriage and there is no sexual abuse, then there is 0% chance that they could get an STI (the exception being exposed to Hepatitis or HIV through blood).
- If both the boy and girl embrace abstinence until marriage, there is a 0% chance of an unintended pregnancy.
- It gives girls and boys an opportunity to complete their education and consider marriage, sex, and parenthood at a more mature age.
- It protects boys and girls from the emotional trauma of multiple sex partners.
- It provides a positive healthy view of sexuality as God’s gift for marriage and not solely for procreation.
- It sets a foundation for a healthy, stable, monogamous marriage sexual relationship.
Mothers have said, “By being written as a conversation, we can read it with our children. Then it opens the door for conversation and they can ask questions.” The idea for presenting the material in a dialogue format came from the Focus on the Family Series: God’s Design for Sex. Focus on the Family has a comprehensive sex education program useful through the developmental stages for those in a more American type context. https://www.focusonthefamily.com/resources-sex-education/
The dialogues are divided into five-day segments. You can access the individual day 1-5 dialogues as posts or find a downloadable pdf copy in the community section that you can print to share with those that don’t have access to the internet. Feel free to translate the dialogues into your local language to use in your context. If you translate the dialogue, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) a soft copy to me so that I can make it accessible to others. I encourage non-Christians that may not hold this worldview to read the material in its entirety to see how this worldview addresses struggles teens in Africa face. The biblical worldview is so central to this tool’s effectiveness, that the biblical elements should not be removed from this tool. The purpose of this tool is to replace culturally based understanding of sex with a biblically based understanding of sex in an African context.