What happens when girls say ‘No’?
A recent United Nations report finds that one-in-four women globally feel powerless to refuse sex with a husband or partner. Yet, the problem could be even worse, as the report does not consider girls under 17. In Nigeria, where masculinity is too often weaponized, girls may be even more vulnerable. Especially now, during the stress of a pandemic and intermittent lockdowns, girls and women need the power to say no. I was once among those girls who could never say no. When my high school boyfriend repeatedly insisted on sexual intercourse and I was in physical pain, I would not refuse his proposal. Although I was generally a confident and assertive person, when it came to sex, I deferred to his desires and demands. I lacked sexual agency—the ability to define myself as a sexual being and assert my needs and desires- and as a result, for years I was trapped in a cycle of voluntary but unwanted sex. Twelve years later, I teach comprehensive sexual education as a consultant in my hometown of Lagos, Nigeria. In every class, I see myself in those young girls as they ask: “How do I tell my boyfriend I don’t want sex without him getting angry?”
Society—and our educational system in particular—has failed these girls by failing to teach comprehensive sexual education that broadly emphasizes young people’s rights, gender norms, consent, power dynamics and responsibility. Now, as COVID-19 has closed schools around the world, and thrust many girls and young women into lockdowns with potentially abusive adults, a highly vulnerable generation of young women lack the most basic tool to protect themselves: the ability to say no. The exercise of sexual agency is a deep-rooted human right that must be recognized and institutionalized through how we teach our young people and the standards to which we hold ourselves. Now is the perfect time for the Ministry of Education to re-evaluate how we approach sex education in schools. In many countries, this will mean stepping away from abstinence-based programs that utilize fear as a tactic while linking girls’ sexual expression with immorality, violence, and victimization. Instead, schools should rapidly adopt comprehensive sex-ed that guides teenagers to analyse how power dynamics and gender roles affect relationships; teaches girls that they can choose if and when to have sex. We need girls to learn that they can stop any sexual advances no matter how aroused their partners are, without feeling guilty for not fulfilling their socially conditioned “girlfriend duties.”
Many governments have veered away from adopting comprehensive sexual education, choosing instead to teach abstinence-based education. This is dangerous. The differences between these two approaches are most evident when comparing the United States of America and the Netherlands. In the USA, half of states require sex education to stress abstinence. In the Netherlands, by law, all schools must start comprehensive sex-ed programs from primary school and address core principles like sexual diversity and sexual assertiveness. Both countries report a similar age of sexual debut. But in the Netherlands, most teens had a positive sexual experience, whereas in the US, 66 percent of teenagers expressed regret. The pregnancy rate of Dutch teens is also eight times lower than the USA. Furthermore, abstinence-based education gives more room for teenage intimate partner violence. US data show that 1 in 9 high school girls experience sexual dating violence and 26 percent of women experience intimate partner violence before they turn 18. For school systems unsure how to proceed with comprehensive sexual education, there are roadmaps and resources. These include AMAZE and Australia’s Government Sexuality Teachers Guide. The curriculum that I have developed, MyBodyIsMine (MYBIM) is a rights-based and gender-focused approach to sexual education. It provides scientifically accurate information and helps young people to explore positive values regarding their sexual and reproductive health. This removes the shame imposed on victims of sexual violence; aims to change the gender expectations of boys and young men, and helps to empower a new generation of girls with sexual agency.
And, until schools reopen, parents and elders can also use these resources to stalk with their daughters about power dynamics in intimate relationships. Parents can model courage by being brave enough to initiate these difficult conversations with kindness and clarity. Until we change the patriarchal social norms that dictate sexual agency, women will continue to be vulnerable. Comprehensive sexual education is one crucial step in that direction. Giving our girls the ability to say no may not stop the most aggressive perpetrators, but it is a first defense.
Ihesie is a sexuality and reproductive educator and founder LoloTalks, a community development enterprise.
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