Updated: Apr 16
An Austrian youngster walks into her parents’ house at 8 on a Sunday morning. Her dad, in the kitchen, goes, “did you enjoy your party, last night, dear?” To this she says, “yes, dad!”
“Did you have sex?”
“Well, I hope you remembered your condoms, schatz…but I hope you enjoyed it!”
Not the typical conversation in a Malawian family, let alone to say an ideal one. So, what’s what about Malawi?
Our country is conspicuously burdened by HIV and AIDS, sexually-transmitted infections, unwanted and child pregnancies, and a happily burgeoning population mainly as the direct result of an inexplicable hesitance to using a condom. Culture has been a key culprit for its fundamental role in constraining our ease at discussing the mediums which facilitate these vices: sex and sexuality. As I write these words, someone is getting uncomfortable, yet these issues embody an important aspect about normal human relationships, our appreciation of self and our health.
The straight talk on sex remains a guarded taboo in our society, even though it has persisted as a key human behavior, among other traits as eating, sweating and going to the toilet. Even then, sex carries weight as that one factor that has been an instrumental player in the rise of nations. Until test tubes were invented, it has been responsible for the birth of great minds human history has ever known and the survival of humanity as a species. Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Robert Solow, Donna Strickland or Jocelyn Bell Brunel were and are, to the best of our knowledge, products of sexual intercourse between their parents. And, even better, sex can pride itself as an enduring component of human enjoyment, entertainment and happiness. As this article advances, it is easy to feel the discomfort of the Malawian reader (who ironically does not want to stop reading.) The mere mention of it causes public frowns, characterizations and odd looks when brought up in unfamiliar settings, especially when such groups comprise an intergenerational character.
However, the main oversight of such coyness is the impact it has on many fundamental rights, including especially sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). While we even cast more frowns at how a mouthful it sounds, we must search ourselves on what it really encompasses before we take the easy understanding as just another issue NGOs, government and bridal showers like to talk about.
Reproductive rights refer to rights that focus on and relate to the potential and ability to procreate. This encompasses fertility, family planning and termination of pregnancy (another hot issue.) But these rights seek for men and women to have control over their own bodies, have consensual sexual relations with whomever and however they wish, make decisions regarding one’s sexuality, define for themselves sexual pleasure and satisfaction (within boundaries of mutual respect), and protect oneself from the risks associated with sexual intercourse, such as unwanted pregnancy, STIs and HIV/AIDS and the right to have equal access to non-judgmental, responsive and friendly services addressing sexual and reproductive health concerns. Underline “non-judgmental.”
According to the 2015 Malawi Youth Experiences Brief by Health Policy Project, adolescents’ sexual awareness among those aged 10–14 years is high (at least 76 percent males and 66 percent females), meaning they have heard of or talked about sex. Over 12 percent of these and almost 52 percent of 15 to 19-year-olds have had sex. A higher percentage of males report to have had sex than females, although one wonders with whom they are sleeping. Regarding age differentials among sexual partners, the report shows 87 percent of males have had sex with younger or same-age partners, while 63 percent of females report their sexual partners were older.
The 2013 National Youth Policy recognizes the need for full involvement of the youth in identifying their reproductive and health needs, the importance of comprehensive sexuality education that promotes abstinence, mutual faithfulness and condom use (the ABCs of SRHR), uptake of family planning services, and equal and zero judgment access to these services for the youth. With that in mind, the intake of contraceptives remains low in Malawi, a question that leads back to our culture of silence as a country where the youth are left to fend for themselves insofar as sexual information remains a norm in Malawi. This norm literally means our youth switch from being told “sex is bad and will ruin your future” to judgment once you’re caught and then to “when will you be getting married and start having children?” For many, the details on how children actually materialize are skipped as expectations sublime straight to procreating the grandkids.
Many ‘youth-friendly’ services in Malawi are just a synonym for unfriendly services where one is judged, questioned and often one’s right to confidentiality can be usurped. The result is youth shying away from realizing their sexual and reproductive health and rights empowerment.
A lot of Malawi’s young people do not understand sexual rights beyond two people climbing into bed to eat ‘the forbidden fruit.’ Although they are undeniably sexually-active, Malawi seems to struggle to come to terms with use of, say, contraception as part of the package on the idea behind reproductive and sexual rights, which are often disregarded if not gendered. This means intimacy and satisfaction have often taken the reprise of being for the taking for the man while the woman must position herself as the passive recipient. This has led to the conventional wisdom that guides the thinking ‘men have sex’ while ‘sex happens to women,’ which further confuses gendered sexual roles further. These gendered roles translate to nonsensical norms where, for example, it is strange for a Malawian woman to carry condoms, understood as a man’s responsibility. No wonder the prevalence of STIs and HIV/AIDS is higher among women. Using 2017 statistics, of the 970,000 men and women 15 years and older that are living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi, 61 percent of them are women!
What misinformation and culture bring us is, as already hinted, a population the government can’t manage to cater to, among whose avoidable causes are high numbers of unwanted and teenage pregnancies. It can be remedied by, in part, appreciating that young people are sexually active and so providing them with the necessary information and services may actually be a smart solution to staying accustomed to depressing health as well as economic and social statistics. Ending the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS will remove the shame of our inability to rid ourselves of a scourge we have had for about four decades now.
Malawi has long lived with cultures that say we must not discuss sex and better look the other way when an utterance of a sexual connotation is made. Yet we become first to judge and define the consequences for others, a culture I must say has played a huge role in the current situation Malawi finds itself in regard to SRHR, high school dropout rates – due to early pregnancies – and rapid STI spread.
Although our candid goal is not necessarily the Austrian family situation highlighted above, sex, sexual and reproductive health must be about freedom and human rights rather than seen as a platform where the only master is culture. For us, the young, it is an inalienable part of our future livelihood.
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