Late last year a young woman that I mentor in Freetown reached out to me on Whatsapp to ask whether I could assist her with going to a clinic. She said that she had developed an itch down there and there was some odor as well. She had been nursing this condition for months without improvement, she eventually turned to me in frustration.
What struck me about her situation is that she lives at home with her mother and yet she did not feel comfortable to discuss her condition with mom. Why? Because mom has never created an environment where she felt she could talk about her reproductive health, her 25 year old daughter, in college was afraid to talk to her about a serious health situation.
She explained her symptoms to me over Whatsapp, and I reached out to a nurse on Facebook who is based in the UK. Together we were able to find a suitable facility for her to go to where she wouldn’t be judged by the health care providers and given “the look”. You know, “the so you’re doing that thing” look of shame.
I reached out to my best friend with the permission of my mentee and asked if she could accompany this young woman to the clinic. They were able to go together and she got the treatment and she has since healed. After the incident I counseled her on the need for protection, telling her she should feel free to express her sexuality but that she should protect her health.
I am sharing this story today because I believe that there is a serious void in the provision of reproductive health education and services for teens and young women. We continue to spend resources to fight maternal mortality but we neglect the provision of reproductive health education. In Sierra Leone adolescent moms account for 30 precent of all maternal deaths but it doesn’t have to be this way. If girls and teens are educated early on about their reproductive health they grow up to become young women and adults who can make informed decisions with regards to sex, birth, and motherhood.
Back in 2011 I went up to the University of Sierra Leone for a TV Show to understand what students there knew about sex and contraceptives. The responses to the Vox Pops told me that students didn’t know very much at all. There wasn’t even a location on campus where students could get free condoms, or let alone a clinic. I was astounded to hear a college student tell me that her form of contraception was to simply stand up after sex and “everything would come out”.
It has been 6 years and hardly much has changed where access to reproductive health education is concerned. Young women in Sierra Leone like my mentee for the most part only have each other to turn to for advice. When I asked her why she didn’t use protection she said she was only sexually active with one person, and that they had only done it a couple of times. That she is safe because she is sticking to one partner is mild compared to the other misgivings that’s out there. A young woman I interviewed on contraceptive use on the beach in Freetown once told me that she heard that if you use a condom it could get stuck in your belly. With these kinds of beliefs, it is no surprise that when Ebola hit it affected girls in a significant way. When you have to turn away 5000 girls from school because they are pregnant then you know you have a serious issue.
Parents please talk to your daughters, and by talk I don’t mean scare them with threats of how ashamed you would feel should they get pregnant. I mean really talk to them, encourage them to be open so that your daughters will reach out to you over a stranger. School administrators need to go back to the Ministry of Education and petition that Family Life Education, the Old School Sec Ed is revamped and modernized and brought to the classroom. Lastly as a community when we have done everything possible to educate our young people, we still need to de stigmatize pregnancy and not force girls to hideaway in shame.
What I do know for sure is your teen or young adult has an unplanned pregnancy 8 out of 10 it is because some one didn’t do their job as a parent. If you counsel your daughter well you’re reducing her chances of contracting an STD, reducing her chances of being lured into a transactional relationship where she will be coerced into sex, and reducing her chances of an unplanned pregnancy.
As we round off this women’s month make this an opportunity to start a conversation about sex and reproductive health, let your daughters be girls and not mothers. Talk to them about sex.