“I don’t want to have sex but my friends say that I have to or the relationship isn’t real.”
“Is it true that I’m supposed to have sex with him if he pays for the movie?”
“Where do I go if I get an STI? I don’t know what to do.”
“Can I get pregnant the first time I have sex?”
They want to know. Young people are desperately seeking information about how to safely navigate their sexual lives. Too often, I leave these conversations with a swirling mix of emotions. I am saddened that they know so very little about personal agency and protecting their sexual health. I am enraged because schools and communities consistently deny them this life-saving information under the guise of morality. I am worried about young women and girls who are frequently targeted for rapes and sexual assaults. I am frustrated because faulty ideas about comprehensive sexuality education in schools are still being used to influence policies. While decision-makers throw around rhetoric about sexual purity, these girls are existing in a world where approximately 50% of victims of sexual assault are girls under the age of 16.
There is the misconception that giving adolescents accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health will propel them into careless, unfettered sex. In reality, the opposite is true. When adolescents have sound, comprehensive information about the responsibilities associated with sexual activity, they are more likely to delay sexual activity. Those who are sexually active are more likely to adopt responsible practices, such as consistent contraceptive use.
This moral grandstanding is particularly ironic given the shocking numbers of statutory rapes around the world. Frequently, girls under the age of legal consent are sexually assaulted. Yet, some people are concerned about “corrupting” girls with information while the true violations are the sexual violations they suffer. The outrage should be reserved for the fact that, for 30% of women worldwide, their first sexual experience was forced and rape increases women’s vulnerability to HIV infection.
So answer their questions. They deserve to know.
Tell our girls and young women that their bodies are their own and that no one has the right to coerce them into any sexual activity. Tell them that any and all forms of rape and sexual assault are wrong and that the blame lies fully with the perpetrator. Educate them that sexual harassment is never a woman’s fault and that no woman ever ‘invites’ rape. They deserve to know.
Tell them that they have the right to comprehensive education about all aspects of their sexual and reproductive health. Tell them they have the right to wait until they can, and want to, give legal consent. Make sure they have all the information necessary to make wise decisions about their sexual lives. Explain that sexuality is neither evil nor dirty. It is a topic that requires honest, factual engagement so that young people have the tools to navigate this arena confidently and safely.
Tell them all the ways to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancies and contracting STIs. Abstinence, while valid, is not the only answer and they should not be shamed into thinking so. Explain to our girls and women that they have the right to determine if and when to have children. No one should be confused and uncertain about where to access information, services and care. They deserve to know.
The Commission on the Status of Women is taking place this week in New York. This UN-level meeting aims to address discrimination against women and girls and the rampant violations of their human rights. The denial of sexual and reproductive health and rights remains a barrier to gender equality, equity and justice. It is time for political decision-makers to not only speak, but implement. Their actions and inaction continue to cost young people, especially girls, their lives. Comprehensive sexuality education in schools is not the enemy. Ignorance is.
“I know that I don’t have to do anything I am not ready for. When I am ready, I know exactly how to protect myself and be safe.”
It is our duty to create a world where all conversations end like this.
*Patrice Daniel is a young, feminist activist from Barbados. She is a Psychotherapist by profession and completed her studies in Vermont, USA. Patrice has a history of social justice work and has been a member and leader of several organizations that address social marginalization, disempowerment and discrimination. Patrice’s passion lies in ensuring racial and gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and combating gender-based violence.
Patrice was recently chosen to be a member of the UN Women Civil Society Advisory Group in the Caribbean. In the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights, she has received significant training, designed and executed educational programmes and raised public awareness of the need for youth-friendly legislation. She works both independently and in partnership with NGOs such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Network and the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Barbados. Patrice participates in UN-level advocacy to advance gender justice and women’s oft-violated human rights.
Additionally, Patrice works on a team to manage a social media campaign that raises awareness of violence against women in the Caribbean. The impact of her work is felt nationally, regionally and globally and she has received notable honours.