Are you a mule? – Sexual pressures on girls and young women in Africa
I have been invited to lead a dialogue on HIV and Aids at a Catholic high school for girls in Cape Town. So there I stand in front of 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 17, and a lively discussion follows. I ask the girls whether they are already sexually active. In unison they respond with a resounding “no”. The question is just whether we are talking about the same thing. It turns out that in the minds of these girls, sex means penetrative vaginal sex. A blowjob administered to boys on the bus is not really sex. Petting, mutual masturbation, anal intercourse? Also not. And so the girls wear the chastity belt with pride and still have their fun. At confession they are not conscious of any sin. One can imagine what that attitude means in terms of the transmission of sexual diseases and HIV.
The girls reach sexual maturity early. Why should they remain chaste until wedlock? Because God wants it so? God did not set any rules for sexual development. In Jesus’ time, married couples were young – puberty and marriage often coincided. But what do we say to young people for whom many years will pass between sexual maturity and matrimony? Are we really helping them if we pronounce a categorical prohibition imposing upon them the priestly obligation of chastity and a celibate lifestyle, and condemn them when they fail? Don’t our solutions create new problems which come back to haunt us? Don’t we risk losing our moral and ethical powers of persuasion when we deny contemporary realities and insist on views that go back to St Augustine?
Or, conversely, are we in danger of submitting to “modernist relativism”, as our Church leaders fear.
I don’t think so. I am much more convinced that the many questions and doubts expressed by these girls, representative of their generation, are defensible and appropriate. They sense the disparity between the teachings of the Church and their lives at school, in their townships or in their villages.
One just need to read the sobering account by a development worker who for a long time worked in the deepest rural areas: “Young women whom I trained to become teachers told me that they became pregnant as girls because they were cajoled and also pressured by every sexually able man between the ages of 15 and 55 in the village. ‘We must see whether you are a mule or not.’ So 95% of my students were already mothers of one or two children… It was virtually impossible for them to exercise their sexual autonomy. Aids-infections were inevitable, and that is also a failing of the Holy See and the local Church which denounce condoms and are tabooing sexuality.”
African mothers sometimes resort to hair-raising methods to conceal the sexual development of their daughters, in a bid to protect them from male attention. In Cameroon, for example, they “iron” their daughters’ growing breasts with hot granite stones over the course of several years, so that they will not become targets to predatory men at too young an age. There is a national campaign to root out this form of torture.
But back to South Africa, to the Catholic schoolgirls. They want to get clear answers from us. They want to be able to articulate their concerns, without feelings of shame or guilt. The Church could create a confidential environment in which it might communicate those norms and values which would help these girls to shape their lives responsibly. But these young people will be receptive to these values only if their emotional being is taken seriously, and if we are willing to be receptive to contemporary scientific insights. Moral values and their practice are not set in stone, but are prone to change. What is crucial is that we preserve the core of these values, and manage to explain them. Then it will be easier to educate careless or uninformed youths about the enormous risks of their sexual practices.
Translation from the book:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages – Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3462039253 – ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback – Bastei – Luebbe –
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3404606159 – ISBN-13: 978-3404606153